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A D.C. court of appeals ruling exempts trailers from federal greenhouse gas and fuel-efficiency rules, but California mandates will create the same technology standards for many fleets, while others are adopting the technology because of the economic case for it.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 on Nov. 12 that the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could not enforce a joint 2016 greenhouse gas/fuel-efficiency rule regulating commercial vehicle trailers.
The rule represented the first time the agencies had set greenhouse gas and fuel-efficiency standards for trailers. It required manufacturers to adopt a combination of fuel-saving technologies such as side skirts and automatic tire pressure systems.
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The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association objected, leading the court in 2017 to grant its motion to stay the EPA’s part of the trailer rule and then to stay NHTSA’s part in 2020. The rule was to take effect Jan. 1, 2021.
The court ruled the agencies could not enforce the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fuel-Efficiency Standards for Medium- and Heavy-Duty Engines and Vehicles — Phase 2 rule. The case was Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al, with the California Air Resources Board, et al, acting as intervenors.
The deadline for appeals has not yet passed. The EPA declined to comment on the ruling. NHTSA does not comment on pending litigation.
The court ruled against the regulations because trailers are not “motor vehicles,” as defined in the statute EPA was citing, or “commercial medium-duty or heavy-duty on-highway vehicles,” as defined by the statute upon which NHTSA was relying.
“Trailers, however, have no motor. They are therefore not ‘motor vehicles,’ ” Judge Justin Walker wrote in the opinion. “Nor are they ‘vehicles’ when that term is used in the context of a vehicle’s fuel economy, since motorless vehicles use no fuel.”
Bill Hicks, SAF product manager for SAF-Holland, said the industry prefers an organic process over mandates.
“The process allows for each OEM to adapt to the change in their own way rather than a mandated change which could bring on substantial short-term and long-term impacts to their product and manufacturing systems,” he said in an emailed response to questions. “In reality, I see a more ‘blended’ approach that will be between the government and the industry, where certain aspects will be regulation mandates, and other changes will grow organically via market demand because of the recognized value benefits that it will provide.”
It is generally better for products to develop organically, agreed Benjamin Brown, vice president of key account management/head of sales for North America for commercial vehicles for ZF Group, which sells products for the trailer market. However, he noted that governments also historically have been drivers of new environmental technology adoption.
Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, wonders about the ruling’s longer term implications. As future technology comes onto the market — such as products that use regenerative braking to power trailer components — some of it could benefit from regulations.
American Trucking Associations originally supported the rule because so many fleets were spec’ing out the technology due to the proven business case for it, said Glen Kedzie, ATA’s energy and environmental council. The cost of products such as trailer skirts and gap reducers is covered by the fuel-efficiency improvements they provide. There wasn’t significant opposition to the rule among stakeholders.
In its appeal decision, the D.C. court ruled trailers are not "vehicles" in the context of their fuel use. (Deflektor)
“We were going to get there anyway,” he said. “We were trending that direction. Fleets were making these investments because for the first time ever, this was an investment to reduce emissions that you would find a break-even point in, mainly your return on investment, in a short period of time.”
Kedzie said the ruling may have a limited practical effect because while the circuit court ruled against federal regulatory authority, it said nothing about state rules. The California Air Resources Board has had trailer rules in place for years, and the federal and California trailer regulations were designed to be harmonized.
Kedzie said California is such a large state that any rules it passes affect many fleets’ policies. If they travel in California, they’ll want to ensure their trailers are compliant.
“Even though it’s only one state, it causes, I don’t want to say a de facto national standard, but a great incentive to make sure that your equipment is going to be compliant if it ends up going through the state of California,” Kedzie said.
Dave Clegern, CARB’s public information officer for climate change programs, said the ruling won’t affect California’s regulations. Kedzie has heard of no legal challenges to California’s rules.
Kedzie said he’s also watching to see what happens with Canada’s rules. That country has delayed until May 3 its own trailer standards, which were aligned with the standards passed by EPA and NHTSA.
The ruling also will not have a huge effect on adoption because fleets were already turning to the main technologies: skirts, low-rolling resistance tires and tire pressure management systems, Roeth said. He said that, based on discussions with fleets and manufacturers, those technologies already have a 70% adoption rate because the business case for them is so strong and simple. A full complement of add-ons can reduce fuel consumption by 15%.
Meanwhile fuel- and emissions-saving technologies for tractors can be complex.
ZF Group’s Brown expects trailer manufacturers will focus on fuel-saving solutions that are original equipment first fit, are easily installed, and offer predictable performance and a good return on investment. Trailer skirts fit that description and are the most widely adopted fuel-saving technology. He said his company’s skirts offer an average of 5% in fuel savings at highway speeds. Nose fairings, which are installed at the front of the trailer to reduce drag, also offer fuel savings, while the company’s ZF OptimFlow rear fairings offer 4.3% fuel savings at highway speeds.
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Current supply chain issues are a concern. Brown cited the rising cost and availability of raw materials such as nylon resin. He said his company utilizes a dual-source strategy to mitigate supply chain bottlenecks.
Jeff Geoffroy, director of marketing and business development for Peterson Manufacturing, which supplies lighting and harness systems to the heavy-duty market, said customers have been focused on reducing weight to improve fuel efficiency and increase capacity, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. He said LED lights have dramatically reduced the electrical current needed for trailers, allowing harnesses to be made with thinner, lighter wires.
One technology that has seen decreasing adoption is tails, Roeth said. Progressive fleets installed them when the technology was introduced, but their need to be deployed before traveling and closed when stopped led many drivers to neglect using them. There were also durability issues.
The original manufacturer, ATDynamics, was bought by Stemco, which has since discontinued them. But other manufacturers have stepped into the market with products that don’t save as much fuel but also have fewer issues, Roeth said.