Public Works: Pioneering the Efficient, Hybrid 18-Wheeler Big Rig
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Public Works: Pioneering the Efficient, Hybrid 18-Wheeler Big Rig

The US government challenged automakers to build an eco-friendly tractor trailer. Here's how they rose to the challenge, and why our local government can too.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Image courtesy of Daimler Trucks North America.

Daimler Trucks, the largest producer of heavy-duty trucks in North America, has launched a hybrid diesel-electric 18 wheeler. Known as the Freightliner SuperTruck, the company bills it as the most fuel-efficient truck in the world.

Unveiled March 25, this eco-friendly big rig is the result of millions of US government dollars and more than five years’ work, all meant to make the industrial supply chain more energy efficient.

In 2010, the US Department of Energy gave Daimler nearly $40 million (USD) as part of the “SuperTrucks Challenge,” a federal initiative encouraging auto manufacturers to make long-haul freight trucks 50 per cent more efficient by 2015.

Daimler delivered an efficiency improvement of 115 per cent. The 2009 baseline used by the SuperTruck Challenge was six miles per gallon. On average, tractor trailers range from four to eight miles per gallon. Daimler’s Freightliner gets 12.2, and future generations of Daimler trucks may be even more economical.

“It is our expectation that we will continue to review and refine what we’ve learned and achieved over the course of the SuperTruck initiative, and use that knowledge to bolster our leadership in fuel efficiency,” said Daimler Trucks North America executive Derek Rotz in a press release.

The SuperTruck Challenge isn’t the only step the US has taken to cut back on industrial trucking’s environmental impact. In 2011, the Obama administration established unprecedented new fuel economy standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks with model years between 2014 and 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency (Environment Canada’s US counterpart) estimated that the new standards would reduce carbon emissions by 270 million metric tons over the course of the vehicles’ lifetime.

Canada followed suit in 2013, announcing it would match US standards for 2014–2018 trucks. But with vehicle emissions still a major health concern, the closer we can get to maximum efficiency, the better.

The City of Toronto estimates that, on average, emissions from personal and commercial vehicles cause 280 local deaths and 1,090 hospitalizations every year. In April 2014, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, recommended that, as part of a broader strategy to combat vehicle emissions, the City work with transportation and environmental experts to improve the efficiency of heavy-duty goods for the sake of an “urban freight strategy.”

Canada’s hot-on-industry, lukewarm-on-environment Conservative government stepped up, and told the automakers to pull up their socks on efficiency standards. It was an improbable and major first step in the right direction. The second, equally improbable step is that more automakers pursue hybrid tractor trailers like the SuperTruck, and that our major companies buy them.