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May 31, 2010 2:00 AM, EDT

Details of Plan to Raise Truck Fuel Economy Remain to Be Spelled Out, Observers Say

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the May 31 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — A week after President Obama announced that the federal government would be crafting the first-ever fuel economy standards for large trucks, observers said it was still unclear exactly what those standards would entail.

“We have the title of the book, we just don’t know how the chapters are going to read,” said Glen Kedzie, American Trucking Associations’ environmental counsel.

Obama signed an executive order here May 21 calling for a standard to be set in time for the 2014 model year.

The standard would, he said, “bring down the costs for transporting goods, serving businesses and consumers alike. It will reduce pollution, given that freight vehicles produce roughly one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation.”

Obama directed the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a rule setting the fuel standard by July 2011, and the agencies’ websites both say a proposed rule will be published in late summer or early fall.

Dennis Slagle, chief executive officer of Volvo AB’s North American truck operations — one of several truck and engine executives attending the White House announcement — told Transport Topics that the order was “a good document but very conceptual at this stage.”

Slagle said that while the industry “would have loved to have a breather” from new emissions standards, “we would rather be part of the process than wake up and find one day that a tablet has been handed to us.”

ATA Chairman Tommy Hodges told TT that the standard would be a “win-win-win situation.”

“We as operators will win because of lower costs. We as a society will win because of the lower fuel consumption and therefore our dependence on fossil fuels, and we as a society will win again because we’ll put less pollutants in the air,” said Hodges, who also joined Obama for the announcement.

Hodges and other industry executives said while it was unclear what shape the final standard would take, they all pointed to a pair of recent studies that may provide hints.

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that spelled out the difficulties in setting a national fuel economy standard for trucks. It said the diversity of the trucking industry and the need for vehicles to haul large amounts of freight limit the fuel efficiency of vehicles and constrain how fuel usage can be measured (4-5, p. 3; click here for previous story).

The report said regulators should measure fuel economy as ton-miles per gallon and not the straight miles-per-gallon used for light vehicles.

Hodges said he had explained to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that “one of the difficulties we have is that there are so many different applications in our industry with different sized loads, different weight loads . . . and she was very cognizant of the fact that one size doesn’t fit all.”

A DOT report said improving aerodynamics, boosting engine performance and improved tires can boost fuel efficiency (p. 2 in this week’sissue; click here for story).

Kedzie said “trucks are not going to see a straight miles-per-gallon” standard.

Randy Mullett, vice president of governmental affairs for Con-way Inc., said EPA and DOT have “been working on it for several months by meeting with different stakeholder groups already.”

Mullett, who was part of the Heavy-Duty Fuel Efficiency Leadership Group that has been meeting with EPA, said while the rule is likely to call for various technologies such as low rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic improvements, it also may include some specific targets.

“I think the rule will come out and say, ‘Here’s a standard that we’re going to try to meet in 2014,’ ” he said. “I don’t have any inside track to that — that’s the logical step for them to take.”

Christy Nycz, spokeswoman for Cummins Inc., said the engine maker supported the use of existing technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that Cummins was “confident that we can achieve whatever these new regulations are in the time that’s given to us.”

Mullett said the NAS report mentioned increased truck size and weight, lower speeds and improved driver training as ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we as a nation are really serious about this, all of these cards have to be on the table,” he said, despite the fact DOT and EPA don’t have authority to regulate those issues.

Staff Reporter Dan Leone contributed to this report.