Big Trucks

I’m goin’ out on the highway

listen to them big trucks whi-ine

White Freightliner

Won’t you steal away my mind

–Townes Van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”)

Freightliner is an Oregon company now owned by Daimler Trucks. You’ve seen the tractors out there alongside the Kenworths, Macks, Peterbilts, and such, hauling trailers up and down the interstates. This is big business: $700 billion in 2017, almost 80% of the nation’s freight value. In physical terms that’s almost 11 billion tons of cargo or 70% of the domestic market.

We are all dependent on these machines. The industry likes to say if you got it, a trucker brought it. And they are right.

But that “big truck whine” might sound quite a bit different these days. Freightliner has a line of natural gas-powered haulers, for example, and they are also introducing two all-electric models, the eCascadia and the eM2 106. That guy with the space company gets all the hype, but he’s not, by any means, the only player in the market.

Obviously there are significant limitations. Electric heavy-duty rigs can only do short hauls of a few hundred miles. But according to the Bureau of Transportation Studies:

Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015. 

So there is a need for this kind of vehicle. In an increasingly urbanized society, reducing noise and pollution in densely-populated areas will improve the quality of life for the citizenry. The exciting thing is it that this isn’t some wannabe technology, there are actual deliveries happening. Costs will have to come down, of course, but I expect we’ll see electric semis operating in an around cities within the next few years.

The diesel engine is a marvelous invention and one that dominates our transportation sector, and for good reason. Diesels can be twice as efficient as ordinary gasoline automotive motors and are unsurpassed in torque, pulling power, and longevity. And they are becoming increasingly cleaner while maintaining a fuel flexibility that gas engines can’t match.

But EVs are here to stay and demand for them will continue to increase. Done right, the shifting of some of our transport needs to electricity can result in a net overall reduction of chemical pollutants. A natural gas-fired power plant can produce electrical energy for consumption with great efficiency and with significantly reduced emissions. Add in solar, hydro, and even nuclear and the percentage of “clean” power in the grid can continue to increase. We all benefit from that.

I wonder if Townes Van Zandt would still stand out on the highway, though. That Freightliner e-whine is probably more like music to my ears than to his!

3 thoughts on “Big Trucks

  1. Diesel engines are getting cleaner. Mostly that is because of low-sulfur mandates put in place on the state and federal level some time ago, and it is not reasonable to assume that the trend, absent technology improvements and further regulation, will continue. A few years back, the air quality district in the Bay Area mapped the toxic risk for air pollutants weighted by cancer toxicity. It looks like a map of the major highways and roadways, with the addition of shipping lanes and railroad lines. That’s because the major driver of airborne toxic risk is, in spite of improvements, diesel particulate, and it’s dirtier cousin, shipping bunker fuel.

    (An aside here. You may wonder why, say, a refinery is not a bigger driver of risk. That is because toxic risk is a product of both the pollutant and population exposure. Refineries have a lot of property around their plants, that distance reduces the concentration of pollutants reaching people a lot more than the distance does between I-80 and west Berkeley housing.)

    Not surprisingly, one of the highest impacted areas is west Oakland, where the major Bay Area port, rail and truck lines converge. So probably one of the most significant things you could do to reduce that risk is to electrify trucking in and around the port, then do the same for rail. That doesn’t mean you have to have a battery that goes cross-county, but probably does mean a peripheral depot to transfer goods for cross-country travel. Yet if you could take the transfer operation out of the immediate port area via, say, an electrified rail line, which would be a significant expense, the resulting property values for all that liberated, bayfront space would be worth a fortune.


  2. Preach, brother!

    Seriously, I hear you. That sort of stuff has been known for a long time. It’s not new science. I remember talking about these things decades ago. Maybe the “marketplace” can finally deliver some solutions. If I remember correctly, some of that sulfur emissions reduction came about via a cap-and-trade scheme. Maybe that was coal plants? Something like that.

    Anyway, change and improvements do come, eventually, they just take way longer than they ought to. And with a troll in the WH the criterium “does it work?” is irrelevant.


  3. Cap and trade has been successful for sulfur-emitting facilities, but it only affects stationary facilities and those with significant sulfur emissions are in the east and midwest. Coals used in the west at power plants tend to have much less sulfur.


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