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Driving Change

California's epic electric truck policy is coming

This is leadership for the climate and for mobility.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transportation Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here

At the same time that the United Nation climate talks were nearing a disappointing end, California moved forward on an unprecedented and world-leading piece of transportation regulation.

Last Thursday, the California Air Resources Board held its final public hearing for the Advanced Clean Truck rules in Sacramento, inviting public comment from over 100 impassioned speakers during the course of five hours, many of them who traveled up from Southern California's Inland Empire — where air pollution from diesel trucks is a pressing problem — to give testimony.

The CARB's Advanced Clean Truck (ACT) rules won't be finalized until next spring, but when enacted, the policy will put in place a world-leading manufacturing (and eventually a fleet-purchasing) mandate to significantly boost the amount of zero-emissions trucks on California's roads. CARB has proposed that truck makers need to manufacture a certain percentage of their vehicles as ZEVs by a certain year, and the devil is in the details for specific classes of trucks (from pickups to semi-trucks). 

In general, environmentalists, community advocates, union workers and NGOs that spoke at the hearing all showed support for the rule but also asked CARB to strengthen it. The original draft proposal excluded pickup trucks from the mandate until 2027 and would lead only to a collective 4 percent of trucks on the roads being ZEVs by 2030. Many speakers said the ruling needs to get to 15 percent of trucks on the roads being ZEVs by 2030.

In general, environmentalists, community advocates, union workers and NGOs that spoke at the hearing all showed support for the rule but also asked CARB to strengthen it.
At the same time, naturally, some automakers such as Volvo expressed concern over the mandates, calling for a more "focused" and "holistic" approach to reaching state ZEV targets. As this policy is a world-first, it's not surprising the automakers would push back against it. Dawn Fenton, director of sustainability and public affairs for Volvo Group, said at the hearing that she was concerned that the ACT "will undermine" Volvo's goals of bringing battery-electric trucks to market. 

Updated: Volvo Group's Fenton clarified that Volvo Group isn't opposed to the strength of the rule, and support's CARB's goals with the rule. But Volvo Group is concerned about the current proposed rule because it lacks specifics and needs more funding for infrastructure and for purchase incentives (see more details in Volvo Group's written public comment, #74). 

CARB Chair Mary Nichols released a statement at the close of the hearing giving a hint at what next year's regulation might look like:

After extensive comments from communities, environmental organizations and industry, CARB's board directed staff to strengthen the clean truck rule and put more zero-emission delivery, box trucks and big-rigs on the road, reaching 100 percent ZEV sales sooner for several segments. Staff will work intensively with stakeholders to come back with the final version in the spring. 

This is transportation leadership. Nichols, who has been negotiating clean air legislation for 45 years, navigates the tricky business of implementing an unprecedented policy with empathy and grace. While it's unclear exactly what the final rule will look like, the intention to strengthen the ruling stands in stark contrast to the lack of leadership at the U.S. federal level and even on the global stage at COP25 last week. 

One reason that the ACT rule has had such widespread engagement is because diesel trucks are not just a climate change issue, but a health problem, particularly in disadvantaged communities. New distribution centers in the Inland Empire, where large numbers of trucks come and go, have been protested heavily by local communities. 

Jimmy O'Dea, senior vehicles analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists, who spoke at the hearing, noted:

Communities impacted by truck pollution want more electric trucks and faster. People came in from all across the state to speak up. A tweet can’t describe the power they brought to the Board meeting.

Ultimately, the local health issue will be the one that sways the court of public opinion. Climate change is important, but when your kid gets asthma because you live near a distribution center, it tends to trump your higher and collective motivations. 

Trucks and buses are increasingly going electric, a trend I highlighted in my top 10 transportation tech trends of 2020

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