How can we get more electric trucks on the road?

Electric car and truck charging

California is considering a policy to drive sales of electric trucks — like it has done for sales of electric cars.

Electric cars in California

You may know that California has the largest share of electric cars in the United States. But it’s surprisingly large.

Despite having 11 percent of the country’s vehicles and 12 percent of the country’s population, California has roughly 50 percent of the 1 million electric cars sold in the United States (value includes plug-in hybrids).

In 2018 (PDF), full electric (95,000) and plug-in hybrid (63,000) electric cars represented 8 percent of all passenger vehicle sales in California (car, SUV, light pickup truck). These impressive numbers were driven largely by sales of the Tesla Model 3, which had its first full year of sales, totaling over 50,000 in the state. Sales of the Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, and Chevy Bolt totaled 10,000 each.

What makes California a leader in electric cars? A main reason is a policy requiring car manufacturers to sell electric vehicles in the state.

California is considering a similar policy for trucks

Trucks1 and buses make up just 7 percent of vehicles on the road in California, but 20 percent of global warming emissions and 40 percent of smog-forming nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the transportation sector, the largest sector for both types of emissions in California.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently released (PDF) the latest iteration of a policy concept that would do for trucks what it has done for cars: set zero-emission sales targets. If set at the right level, such targets could transform the truck sector from one fueled by diesel to one powered by electricity and hydrogen.

The standard has undergone 2.5 years of public workshops and information gathering. It will undergo a year more of public input before it is voted on.

Here’s where things stand

The sales standard proposed by CARB would result in about 5 percent of trucks (84,000) operating in California as zero-emission vehicles by 2030.

Viewed from the limited number of electric trucks on the road in California today (less than 1,000), 84,000 zero-emission trucks might sound like a lot. But viewed in terms of the entire 1.5 million trucks operating in the state, 95 percent would still be powered by a combustion engine in 2030.

The table below summarizes the sales standard proposed by CARB. It sets different standards for different categories of trucks, Class 2b-3; Class 4-8 vocational trucks; and Class 7-8 tractor (semi) trucks.

Graph of zero-emission sales for vehicles and standards

truck sales percentages

Numbers are based on today’s truck sales (100,000 trucks per year) and today’s truck population (1.5 million trucks across all categories) in California. These numbers also assume no trading of truck credits with different values across the Class 2b-3, Class 4-8 vocational, and Class 7-8 tractor categories which CARB has proposed allowing.

How has the policy changed over the last two years?

CARB’s original proposal, released two years ago, started at a 2.5 percent sales standard in 2023 and increased to 15 percent in 2030. The most recent proposal starts a year later and works out to be 3 percent of total sales in 2024, increasing to 25 percent of total sales in 2030.

The original draft included Class 2b pickup trucks but excluded Class 8 trucks. The most recent draft flips that and includes Class 8 trucks but excludes pickups until 2027. Plug-in hybrid trucks (those that have a battery with 20 miles in range combined with a combustion engine) would be counted as one-third of a full electric truck.

Using the most recent sales numbers, the original proposal would have resulted in 72,000 zero-emission trucks by 2030, compared to 84,000 trucks with the new proposal. This increase, small in the context of the 1.5 million trucks in California, does not match the advances in truck technology and purchases that we’ve seen in the last two years, or the $579 million approved for investments in electric truck and bus charging infrastructure.

Just last week, electric utilities in California, Oregon and Washington announced they will study how to provide charging infrastructure for trucks along I-5. We’ve come a long way since electric cars first hit the market in late 2010; even interstate electric truck travel is considered within reach.

A more ambitious standard is needed

Improving local air quality and reducing California’s contribution to global warming will require more than 5 percent of trucks to be zero-emission by 2030. So, the overall sales targets need to be higher.

For a sense of scale, 225,000 zero-emission trucks would be just 15 percent of trucks on the road today. Analysis (PDF) by CARB indicates that 100,000 cleaner trucks are needed in the Los Angeles area alone to meet 2023 air quality standards. And we can’t get to net-zero carbon emissions (PDF) by 2045, a goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, without significant deployment of electric trucks.

In the Class 2b-3 category, there is room for strengthening the standard (currently tops out at 15 percent of sales in 2030), especially if pickup trucks have a delayed timeline as drafted. Some vehicles most suited for electrification today, such as small delivery vans, small box trucks and shuttle buses, are in the Class 2b-3 category.

The sales standard also should start in 2024 for Class 7 and 8 tractor trucks, rather than being delayed until 2027. Electrification of these trucks is particularly important as they travel greater distances and have lower fuel efficiencies than other types of trucks. Several battery and fuel cell-electric tractor trucks are planned (PDF), if not in demonstration already.

The benefits of moving faster on truck electrification include reductions in global warming emissions and improvements in air quality. And recent UCS analysis shows that reducing emissions from vehicles is critical for addressing the inequitable exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks experienced by low income and communities of color in California.

Detailed analysis (PDF) by CARB also indicates significant financial benefits are possible with truck electrification. In all three truck applications examined by CARB, it was estimated to be comparable if not cheaper to own and operate a battery electric truck than a diesel truck in 2024, when the proposed standard would take effect. In some applications, battery electric trucks are estimated to be cheaper today, without including the significant purchase incentives offered by the state.

UPS electric delivery truck, BYD Class 6 electric box truck, Toyota Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell semi truck.
From left: UPS electric delivery truck, BYD Class 6 electric box truck, Toyota Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell semi truck.

The sales standards will be coupled with purchase standards

CARB has indicated an intent to develop purchase standards for fleets that would complement the sales standards for manufacturers. The purchase standards also would take effect in 2024.

The details of these standards — likely different for various end-uses of trucks — have yet to be determined, but would set targets for fleets to begin incorporating electric truck models into their operations. To help inform their development of truck purchase standards, CARB plans to collect data (through regulatory action) from fleets operating in the state.

Purchase standards aren’t without precedent. In December, California set a landmark purchase standard that will ensure every transit bus sold in the state will be a zero-emission vehicle by 2029. This was the first policy in the United States shifting an entire class of vehicles to 100 percent electrification.

In all, sales and purchase standards are the next step in getting clean trucks on the road. Such standards will build on successful purchase incentive programs (PDF) already in place as well as charging infrastructure investments approved and underway by California electric utilities. This suite of policies mirrors strategies that have made California a leader in electric cars.

What’s next

CARB staff will continue hosting workshops on the proposed sales standard and fleet reporting requirements over the next several months. The CARB Board will have its first formal, but non-voting, hearing of the sales standard and reporting requirements in December. A final version of both will be voted on sometime in 2020.

As the process for developing the sales standard progresses, UCS will be evaluating technology availability and advocating for standards that put the electric truck market on a trajectory that is feasible, ambitious and necessary to address the public health, climate and equity problems resulting from truck exhaust.

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