California bans new diesel trucks effective 2036, a world first

The California Air Resources Board has voted unanimously to finalize its Advanced Clean Fleets rule, a massive new regulation on medium- and heavy-duty fleet vehicles that, among other things, requires all new medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold or registered in the state of California to be zero-emission come 2036.

The rule is a complement to CARB’s previous Advanced Clean Trucks rule adopted in 2020.

The two rules are similar but distinct. ACT was primarily a manufacturer requirement, requiring that manufacturers supply enough electric trucks. ACF will be a fleet adoption requirement, requiring that commercial fleet operators purchase a certain percentage of electric trucks.

In the interim few years, it has become apparent that not only are climate change and pollution becoming even more urgent, but that the market for EV trucks has advanced significantly, with hundreds of total models available, across every truck class from 2b through 8. And these trucks have more than enough range for most fleet applications, which often have predictable daily usage schedules.

Because of this, the ACF rule has been strengthened since it was first proposed. Despite originally starting as an urban delivery truck requirement, then morphing into a sales requirement for several types of fleets, it has now been modified to improve on ACT and require even more of manufacturers.

Among these requirements is a new 2036 target for an end to diesel truck sales. This was lowered from an early 2040 target, with the thought that 2040 would be too late to reach California Governor Gavin Newsom’s goal for 100% zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2045. Nine years gives a lot more wiggle room than five years to turn over the entire state’s fleet, though nine years is still a tight timeline.

Notably, the new 2036 target is only one year off from California’s 2035 target for cars. In many locales, truck regulations have a later timeline than car regulations, so being only one year off sets quite a precedent. It suggests that other locations may not need to delay truck regulations quite as long as they often do, and that medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are just as prime for electrification as light-duty is.

The rule has many categories and exceptions for niche applications, and recognizes that there may be some applications for which commercial solutions may not exist, or where infrastructure installations might delay implementation. And timelines differ for certain entities – “high-priority” entities like state and local governments and large commercial operators must comply earlier, whereas smaller operators and less optimal applications like long-haul trucking have more time to comply.

It also doesn’t affect existing equipment for the most part, and has provisions to allow vehicles to continue being used throughout their typical full useful life.

But it also includes many milestones that are sooner than the 2036 target. For example, state and local agencies must purchase 50% ZEV by 2024, and 100% ZEV by 2027. And drayage vehicles, the category of trucks that transport cargo from ports to distribution centers, must reach 100% all-electric purchases by 2024 (!).

These sales targets will enable a smooth transition to ZEV fleets, with in-service fleets reaching:

  • 100% zero-emission drayage trucks, last-mile delivery, and government fleets by 2035
  • 100% zero-emission refuse trucks and local buses by 2040
  • 100% zero-emission capable utility fleets by 2040

Additionally, California expects that nearly half of all semi-trucks that travel on its highways will be zero-emission by 2035 and about 70% will be zero-emission by 2042, with the eventual goal of 100% by 2045.

Local air quality concerns in California

The drayage regulation is particularly important in Southern California, where the two largest container ports in the US, the adjacent Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, operate. These ports contribute to poor air quality in the LA basin and the Inland Empire, the area inland of LA where many of the nation’s largest warehouses and logistics and distribution centers operate.

Both regions exist in a “bowl” between the mountains of Southern California, trapping air pollution from thousands of cargo trucks. The same applies to California’s Central Valley, which produces half of the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but is surrounded by large mountains that trap pollution from farm equipment and cargo trucks bringing food up and down Interstate 5.

As a result of all this activity and these mistakes of geography, California has some of the most-polluted cities in the US. Despite California’s history of clean air action, there is still a lot of cleaning up to do.

CARB considered allowing CNG trucks to qualify as part of the regulation, but data shows that it’s nowhere near as clean as ZEV and not much better than diesel, so the focus with these regulations is on zero-emission trucks only, including both plug-in and hydrogen-fueled. It recalls the old Henry Ford quote: “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, as long as it is black” – you can use any powertrain you want, as long as it’s electric.

CARB says that the regulations in question will save $26.5 billion in statewide health benefits from lower emissions of dangerous pollutants, and an additional $48 billion in net savings to fleets from lower operational costs. These numbers don’t include other environmental benefits (like reducing noise pollution), beyond the direct benefits to human health through higher air quality and cost benefits to fleet operators.

While initial costs can be high for purchasing new electric vehicles, particularly heavy-duty vehicles, tens of billions in funding is available in the form of purchase incentives (both at the state and federal level) and utility infrastructure installation programs. Availability of funding is one reason that CARB felt confident pushing regulations forward.

During the public comment period at CARB’s board meeting, many members of the public came forward – some with the help of an interpreter – to describe the effects that living near truck depots has had on their health. Workers, children, environmental leaders, and members of many communities told heartfelt tales of the woe caused by pollution and begged the board to adopt these rules.

Industry representatives mostly recognized that these plans were coming in some form or another, but asked for specific carveouts or adjustments (many of which were reasonable, some which are already included in the regulation), or stated that the timelines are just too early and would be too hard to meet.

These same industry representatives rarely acknowledged the difficulty of, for example, being diagnosed with asthma as a child and knowing that you will have to deal with that for your entire life, at no fault of your own. Given that industry constantly complains about the difficulty of complying with regulations, it would be nice if they acknowledged the difficulty they foist on others through noncompliance.

A diverse coalition led the effort

The regulation saw a surprising coalition of support, which is what allowed it to be strengthened over the course of the rulemaking process.

In particular, the Environmental Justice community took center stage. Environmental Justice is the concept that environmental problems are exceptionally insidious because their effects are disproportionately felt by disadvantaged communities.

With California’s previous ACC2 regulation for cars, this was a consideration, but not as much as with ACF.

We spoke with Sasan Saadat, a senior policy analyst with Earth Justice, who pointed out that “cars don’t have the same super localized and acute health impact that trucks have on communities of color in California.” Logistics centers tend to be concentrated in places where land value is comparatively cheap, and trucks tend to drive along routes in less wealthy areas, so the local pollution from trucking affects those communities more.

But the laborers who work in heavy-duty vehicles are affected as well. We’ve heard that truck operators who switch to electric trucks typically feel better driving these trucks than those with dirty diesel engines. With less noise, vibration, and fumes, electric trucks are easier on the body than diesel trucks are. And cleaning the air around a port will mean workers in that port suffer fewer health problems from breathing all the junk in the air around them.

This may have influenced unions to be more in favor of ACF than they might have otherwise, as labor can sometimes resist change out of fear that it might jeopardize jobs. Saadat called it an “unlikely partnership between environmental justice groups and labor unions” because “labor unions softly supported or were mostly neutral on the car side, but they are strongly in support on this regulation.”

Truck driver unions were likely influenced to support the rule due to a history of industry misclassifying employees as independent contractors, which gave “a much clearer sense that the corporate entity is the enemy, because the logistics industry and the trucking industry exploit drivers like crazy,” said Saadat.

ACF includes provisions to stop this practice, a callback to California’s recent AB5 law, which reduced the number of employees who can be categorized as such. ACF puts the onus on “controlling companies,” not drivers, to comply with the rule.

The coalition also included the usual suspects – public health and environmental organizations (you know, scientists – ugh, who listens to those people). Then there were electrical unions who will largely be tasked with installing this infrastructure, and even several business groups and fleets who not only see the writing on the wall and want a seat at the table, but who see the huge potential savings from electrification of their fleets. TCO analysis shows that many ZEVs are already cheaper than diesel, and all will be cheaper in the coming years.

California leads the way, again

The ACF rule is thought to be the strongest medium- and heavy-duty truck regulation in the world, and the first to ban the sale of diesel trucks. California’s light-duty car targets are strong, but could be stronger, and are exceeded by many national and subnational governments worldwide. But the new ACF rule is a true gauntlet-throw compared to all other governments we’re aware of.

We have been known to ask “why not sooner?” when new EV regulations come into play, but in this case we don’t think that question is necessary. This is soon. This is big.

Since ACT was finalized in 2020, several other states have joined in and adopted or have considered adopting the regulation. Once ACF is finalized – and again, it’s even stronger than ACT was – we should be able to expect some other states to join in, though we don’t know which ones will yet.

Regardless, California, as the world’s fifth biggest economy (ahead of UK and India, behind Germany) and a major car market, and with so much influence on policy in other US states, is sending a drastic signal here that manufacturers need to be ready for a zero-emissions future, and need to be ready fast.

The same has happened with other regulations in the past. California has wide authority to adopt its own clean air regulations because of a longstanding waiver the state has held with the EPA, due to it having its own Clean Air Act passed before the national Clean Air Act was passed. Other states can adopt California’s version of regulations, as long as they take them in an all-or-nothing manner.

The EPA tried to revoke California’s waiver under the leadership of fossil industry advocates Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler. They failed to do so, partially due to pushback from several states, and partially due to a favorable switch in leadership in federal government.

And it’s especially timely that CARB’s vote happened just two days after Senate republicans voted to poison Americans by trying to roll back nationwide EPA truck regulations. That rollback won’t make it past President Biden’s veto pen, but shows the stark contrast between a heavily Democratic state that is working to lower costs and improve health with a broad coalition of support, and a national republican Party that has signaled it wants to do the opposite.

And as a first-of-its-type regulation, from a state so influential in environmental policy not just nationwide but world-wide, it may even inspire other countries into similar action.