Zero Emission Trucks- Impacts for Transportation Planners

Technology is always disrupting the global supply chain. Whether it’s maritime design technology that enables the construction of larger ships, cloud-based optimization systems that make route choices more efficient, or information technology applications that match available loads to existing capacity, technology is a major catalyst of change in goods movement. One particular suite of technology applications—the movement to zero-emission technology for heavy trucks—has the capability to transform costs in the industry while providing tremendous environmental benefits.

Commercial vehicles equipped with “Zero-Emission technology”—or ZE—do not emit tailpipe pollutants from the on-board source of power. Criteria pollutants (those regulated by the Clean Air Act, like particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead) are eliminated from ZE vehicles. So too are other air toxins like volatile organic compounds (VOC), carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases.

There currently are two fuel options that are inherently zero tailpipe-emission, either of which can be used for Class 8 trucks (those with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating more than 26,000 pounds):

  • Hydrogen (via fuel cells). Trucks equipped with this technology have longer ranges and refueling times and are better suited to longer-haul applications.
  • Electricity (via batteries). This option is typically better suited to short-distance hauling, though with specialized infrastructure (like overhead catenary wires or in-road inductive charging), these technologies could be adapted to longer-haul use as well.1

These new vehicles will first begin to enter the commercial fleet around maritime ports, specifically with trips between Port to/from rail yards and transload facilities within a 200-mile radius. Many ports in the U.S. are moving toward some type of Clean Truck program and ZE trucks will begin to be a larger component of those programs as they continue to evolve.

As you would expect, California is a leader in adopting ZE trucks, spurred in part by the California Air Resource Board’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project, which provides vouchers to facilitate the purchase of low-carbon hybrid and electric trucks and buses. Since 2010, this program has provided approximately $63 million to help California fleets statewide purchase more than 430 zero-emission trucks. In addition, the Port of Long Beach already is making ZE investments as part of its $1.5 billion Middle Harbor terminal modernization project. As part of that effort, container unloading, stacking, and sorting will be accomplished using electric cranes and driverless, battery-powered vehicles instead of diesel-burning yard tractors.

So what does this mean for state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), particularly those located near load center ports, which will be among the early adopters? First, the emergence of ZE trucks into the heavy truck fleet will have a significant impact on air quality forecasts, attainment, and subsequent funding allocations at the state, regional, and local levels. Forecasters may need to update their models to more precisely reflect air quality impacts these new vehicle types will bring. Second, transportation and land use planners will need to track how the production, distribution, transmission, and dispensing of fuels to support these new vehicles will integrate with current land use policies, development plans, and regional travel patterns. Finally, these vehicles could have a significant impacts on funding priorities, particularly in regions with large-scale logistics and distribution activities.  

To date, environmental, resource, and energy-related agencies and entities have been most heavily involved in ZE. However, it is important for transportation planning leaders and policymakers to begin to understand where these technologies are going, the business forces pushing their adoption, and how quickly they could become reality, so that the right mix of investments – short and long term- can be identified.


1 International Council on Clean Transportation.

This piece was originally posted to LinkedIn