Trailers -- the big cargo carriers that transport much of the nation's goods -- could see major improvements in efficiency if the Obama administration chooses to regulate them.

The president's call for fuel efficiency standards for large trucks and buses yesterday will allow vehicle manufacturers to tackle crucial energy savings left out in the first phase of the regulation, said industry experts yesterday.

"I think it's virtually certain that they're going to regulate trailers," said Pat Quinn, executive director of the Heavy Duty Fuel Efficiency Leadership Group, an alliance of companies in the trucking industry. "That is a major new element of what everyone is anticipating."

Trailers are the part of the truck that attach to the tractor.

In a speech at Safeway Distribution Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., President Obama ordered U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to propose efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles, from large pickup trucks to school buses to 18-wheel tractor-trailers, by March 2015, and finalize the rule one year later. California's Air Resources Board will help the federal agencies craft the rule (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

The administration completed its first set of standards for heavy-duty vehicles -- Phase One -- in 2011, for model years 2014 to 2018. Phase Two will extend the standards beyond 2018, building on the first installment's goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from heavy-duty vehicles by 2018.

"Our best information is that the agencies are going to move forward with some kind of a regulation on trailers," said Ben Sharpe, a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). "We've gotten -- not commitments and certainly not public commitments -- but our conversations with EPA and NHTSA suggest that it's certainly a high priority for both of those agencies." Sharpe co-authored two white papers on fuel efficiencies from trailers in the heavy-duty vehicle regulation.

At the time of the Phase One completion, there was a general agreement that there weren't enough data on trailers and fuel efficiency benefits, said Quinn.

Streamlining creates prompt payback
A big area of improvement is expected to be in improving the aerodynamics of trailers, although many steps have been adopted already. Side skirts, panels that reduce drag on a truck's undercarriage, are the most widely used aerodynamic enhancement, according to a study from the ICCT.

Wabash National Corp., the largest trailer manufacturer in North America and a member of Heavy Duty Fuel Efficiency Leadership Group, puts skirts on more than half of its new trailers, said Quinn.

"They are being widely adopted already, but EPA would like to push that adoption rate further," he said.

The ICCT found that, across seven trailer efficiency technologies, fuel savings ranged between 1 and 7 percent, with payback times lasting up to five years.

Trailer tires also have the potential to lower drag, and weight reduction can yield savings, as well. Tires and skirts will lead to a 5 to 6 percent increase in fuel efficiency. Low-resistance tires and wide-base single tires could provide up to 4 percent fuel reductions, according to one of the ICCT white papers, although the responses across the industry vary widely.

The economic savings are significant, as well. Lower fuel expenditures tied to shipping goods cross-country could save the average American household $250 per year, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

"The agencies expect that the Phase 2 standards will deliver further benefits through the implementation of new cost-effective technologies," said EPA in a statement. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, these new proposals could lead to a 26 percent reduction in fuel over Phase 1 and save close to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2035. They could cut carbon emissions by 270 million metric tons, about the same as 4 million passenger vehicles, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The expiration date on the Phase Two standards is still unclear, said Don Anair, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program.

According to a 2010 National Academy of Sciences report, requiring efficiencies in trailers, transmissions and tires would allow for a 35 percent cut in emissions from trucks and buses (E&ENews PM, Oct. 21, 2010).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500