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Big rigs get environmental overhaul

A convoy of trucks rolls out of the Port of Long Beach in Southern California.

Shipping containers are loaded onto tractor trailers at the Port of Long Beach.

Head on down to the Port of Long Beach on any given day, stand alongside the hundreds of big rigs meandering from harbors to Southern California's freeways and take a deep breath. Every truck that rolls by coughs out a little whiff of diesel exhaust.

"We still suffer from the worst air quality in the nation," says Dr. Matt Miyasato, Deputy Executive Officer for Science and Technology Advancement at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, "and that means that our residents are not breathing healthful air about a third of the year." 

Miyasato identifies diesel engines as a major contributor to toxic air -- not just in Long Beach, but across the country. And in addition to delivering asthma and lung cancer, old-fashioned dirty big-rigs eat up $150 billion in fuel every year.

The good news is manufacturers like Cummins and Peterbilt are working on new trucks that are 50% more energy-efficient.

Dr. Mark Duvall at the Electric Power Research Institute says companies like Staples are experimenting with electric delivery trucks. Staples can expect to pay $30,000 more for an electric truck, but recoup that expense in maintenance after about three years.

"You can actually take the combustion engine and it’s not even in the equation," says Duvall. "You get rid of the transmission, the fuel tank, all the emission systems. And so you you save quite a bit of cost and weight and you make a much simpler vehicle."

Researchers have identified various new technologies that would yield significant energy savings if implemented.

"We would be cutting the projected fuel use by 1.4 million barrels of oil per day," says Dr. Dave Cooke, a Vehicles Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "And that corresponds to about 270 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses.”

The Department of Energy is pushing truck manufacturers to bring these tech innovations to market as soon as possible, through an initiative called SuperTruck.

"I think you will see these technologies migrate to the market quite quickly," says Patrick Davis, Director of the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. "The cost of shipping is directly added to the cost of goods and services delivered. So as you lower the cost of shipping, you would expect the cost of those goods and services to go down."

Those savings aren’t due until 2017, when tighter emissions rules go into effect. But some truck manufacturers are already getting a jump on that deadline by rolling out small improvements one by one, three years ahead of schedule.

Shipping containers are loaded onto tractor trailers at the Port of Long Beach.

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