President Obama announced Tuesday that big tractor-trailer trucks will have to get 20 percent more miles per gallon by the 2018 model year, under the first-ever fuel economy rules for heavy vehicles.
The rules mimic the “light duty” fuel economy standards for cars and sport-utility vehicles that have been in place since 1975. But they are more complex, tailored to cover everything from garbage trucks, which must get a 10 percent improvement, to pickups and vans that are too big to be covered by the existing rules, and which must now make a 15 percent improvement.
The rules are allowed under a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2007, but it has taken until now to devise the program. And President Obama, speaking at a time when there is substantial opposition to new environmental rules, said in a statement that the vehicle owners wanted their trucks to be regulated.
“While we were working to improve the efficiency if cars and light-duty trucks, something interesting happened,” he said in a statement. “We started getting letters asking that we do the same for medium and heavy-duty trucks. They were from people who build, buy and drive these trucks.”
In fact, truck manufacturers have not been nearly as resistant to fuel economy standards as car manufacturers have sometimes been. Experts say that if all the manufacturers are pushed into building more efficient trucks, customers will have a reason to buy new vehicles, even if their purchase prices are higher.
The Environmental Protection Agency said that the rules would cost vehicle buyers $8 billion, but that would be paid for in fuel savings in a year or two, depending on the vehicle. Total benefits, including less time spent refueling, and lower global-warming emissions, would exceed costs by $49 billion over the lifetime of the trucks, the agency said.
While the percentage gains are significant, some of the vehicles go only six miles or so on a gallon, so the actual miles per gallon numbers will not rise much. But the vehicles can cover more than 200,000 miles a year.
The rules do not cover truck trailers. That will come later, the agency said.
Commercial trucks used about 22 billion gallons of diesel fuel last year, a number that experts say could be cut substantially. Heavy-duty vehicles also consumed a significant fraction of the 150 billion gallons of gasoline and ethanol sold last year.
Drew Kodjak, a vehicle expert who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied how large a fuel economy improvement was
reasonable, said that no matter what the precise numbers specified in the new rule, simply publishing it was important to lay the ground work for future improvements. The rule Mr. Kodjak said, “establishes the key elements of the program,” including the standard course over which the vehicles would be measured, and other test methods, the existing level of fuel economy and determination of who was responsible for improvements. As with car fuel economy rules, they can be tightened over time, he said.
Owners of the biggest trucks could spend substantial sums on equipment to improve fuel economy and still come out ahead financially, said Allen R. Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a trade association, because small percentage improvements would add up to big volumes of fuel. “A typical long-haul truck, running 150,000 miles a year at 6 miles a gallon, is burning 25,000 gallons a year,” Mr. Schaeffer said. At a price of $4 a gallon, that comes to $100,000 for fuel. “That is a big number,” he said.
And there is big potential for savings on smaller trucks, including pickups that are just slightly larger than the ones that now fall under the light-duty rules, say advocates.
“We’re seeing technologies in light-duty sector improving rapidly,” said Zoe Lipman, senior manager of transportation solutions at the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s definitely about time we got to the heavy stuff.” The new rules, Ms. Lipman said, will result in technologies already in use on light-duty vehicles being employed in bigger trucks.