Truck makers fight climate rules while touting an electric future

Under pressure to phase out diesel-powered trucks, major manufacturers have offered plenty of assurances. Volvo plans to be “fossil free” by 2040 and boasted in its latest annual report that it was “leading the transformation” of the industry. Daimler Truck, the largest maker of heavy trucks globally, has set a goal of selling only carbon-neutral trucks and buses in the United States, Europe and Japan by 2039.

But behind the scenes, the truck industry’s lobbyists are working to delay that clean-truck future. The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents the nation’s largest truck manufacturers, has pushed to weaken tougher federal rules curbing planet-warming gases and other pollutants. The industry has also led a campaign against a new California rule, adopted by five other states, that would require manufacturers to sell more zero-emission trucks.

If truck makers win, environmentalists argue, they will be able to continue selling diesel vehicles for longer, postponing a transition to electric power.

“What we’re seeing from their lobbying is they want to commit to as little as possible,” said Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Promises in press releases don’t actually mean anything. They can say we’re setting a target, we’re spending money, but that doesn’t have to produce results.”

While the push to convert America’s passenger cars to electric power is accelerating, the same transition for medium- and heavy-duty trucks has just begun. Truck makers say they can only move as quickly as the market allows, while environmentalists counter that these companies have already waited too long to electrify and will keep dragging their feet without hard deadlines.

Policymakers are targeting the sector because it accounts for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles in the United States and generates harmful pollutants that cost thousands of lives each year. A recent American Lung Association report estimates switching to zero-emission trucks would prevent 66,800 premature deaths over the next 30 years.

Truck makers and their lobbyists say they don’t see a disconnect between their public and private actions.

Dawn Fenton, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Volvo Group North America, said the company is “very committed to eventually getting to 100 percent fossil free by 2040.”

But she said government mandates don’t account for supply-chain snarls, the lack of a nationwide charging network and the fact that electric trucks are too costly for some buyers. Volvo recently announced a deal to sell 20 heavy-duty electric trucks to Amazon, and the company plans to complete an electric-truck charging corridor in California by next year. But, Fenton added, “there’s so much that we don’t have control over.”

Under President Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun work on rules to cut pollution and climate-warming emissions from trucks, buses and delivery vans. The first, which is slated to be finalized by the end of the year, would toughen limits on truck pollution for the first time since 2001 and tighten the current greenhouse gas standards. The second rule would lower greenhouse gas limits starting in model year 2030, speeding the transition to all-electric trucks.