As record heat waves continue to bake much of the U.S. West, momentum to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by trucks—the backbone of logistics and supply chains—will continue to grow. “The trucking industry is facing government anti-pollution requirements as well as cargo customers eager to eliminate carbon from their supply chains,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in an August 9 story about technology pilots to remove carbon-dioxide from truck exhaust. Like logistics and shipping automation, this trend is still in its early days, but it’s worthwhile taking a look at what’s coming down the pike, so to speak.
The Biden Administration recently called on the EPA to ramp up fuel-efficiency and GHG standards for cars and trucks. The rulemaking is expected to take three years and wouldn’t affect truck sales until 2029 or 2030. But pressure is also coming from large companies—those “cargo customers” mentioned by the Journal—like Unilever to reduce GHG emissions in their supply chains and shipping.
The key metric to watch is grams of carbon-dioxide (CO2) per ton-mile, or how much CO2 a truck emits for every ton of freight it moves one mile. Rail shipping scores much higher than trucks in this regard, emitting about one-third as much CO2 per ton-mile —an advantage the rail industry highlights (see Freight Railroads are Addressing Climate Change). The US EPA endorses the superiority of rail in terms of GHG emissions and also champions the per ton-mile advantages of barge shipping.
But with their vastly greater flexibility in routes and load sizes, trucks will be key players in supply chains for the foreseeable future. According to industry data, trucks hauled 72.5% of domestic freight tonnage in 2019.
MPG gains won’t be enough
Truck manufacturers and trucking companies have for many years been adopting technology solutions to improve MPG—which cuts their costs as well as improving environmental performance. Common techniques include aerodynamic trailer and cab add-ons; operational practices like limiting speeds and optimizing routes and loads; and technology to ensure tires are properly inflated. Mandatory low-sulfur diesel fuel blends and onboard air pollution gear have made trucks much cleaner from a pollution standpoint.
These and other changes make incremental improvements in MPG and CO2 per ton-mile. But alternatives to the standard diesel powertrain will also be needed. Natural gas—either compressed or liquified—and biodiesel are the most mature alternative fuels for trucks. But climate advocates are critical of both. Natural gas (methane), while lower in CO2 content than diesel, is responsible for methane leaks from gas pipelines and other infrastructure before it gets to the fuel tank. Biodiesel can only be used in small percentage blends and requires a lot of heavy equipment usage—and GHG emissions—to farm and process feedstocks such as soy.
Some versions of these fuels claim lower GHG content, including renewable gas (from landfills and animal waste) and renewable diesel, which can also be used in standard diesel engines. Renewable gas is an increasingly popular fuel for logistics companies including UPS, but whether burning renewable or conventional gas, trucks using it are limited in range due to lack of gas fueling infrastructure for long-haul shippers.
Electric trucks still a question mark
The North American Council on Freight Efficiency (founded by trucking companies and RMI, formerly Rocky Mountain Institute) highlights electrification as the most promising among “Emerging Technologies.” NACFE admits that at this point, electric drivetrains are only viable for “certain applications,” and that very large private and public investments would be required to transition a significant part of the trucking fleet to electric drive.
Still, progress is noticeable in the electric truck field. NAFCE’s Run on Less initiative will feature an electric truck demonstration in September, and some notable commercial investments have occurred recently. For example, FedEx recently contracted with electric truck maker Xos for 120 electric trucks.
While there’s a long way to go, truck OEMs and the trucking industry are clearly gearing up for major transitions in fuels and drivetrains in the next decade. A recent Sustainable Fleets report sponsored by Daimler, Penske, Shell and others found that “every long-haul, delivery, and large-scale fleet … surveyed report that they plan to increase their use of clean vehicle technologies. [And] 91% of for-hire fleets … expect their use of clean technologies to increase in the next five years.”
This trend likely won’t bring short-term changes to supply chain management. But forward-thinking supply chain pros should know what’s coming and look for ways to take advantage of the eventual greening of trucking.