Climate, Health, and Economic Benefits From the Shift to Electric Heavy-Duty Trucks

A electric heavy-duty truck drives on a highway

Heavy-duty trucking is a growing industry that connects the global economy, but its reliance on fossil fuels has made it a potent source of pollution. 

Heavy-duty trucks are the fastest-growing source of climate pollution in the U.S., emitting nearly a quarter of the climate pollution from transportation, even though trucks are just four percent of all the vehicles on the road. They’re also responsible for 45 percent of the nitrogen oxide pollution and 57 percent of the fine particulate (PM 2.5) pollution in the U.S. — both of which are linked to premature death and chronic illnesses like heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and childhood asthma. These impacts are especially acute in low-income and BIPOC communities that decades of racist transportation policy placed near major roadways and freight hubs. 

In the face of these challenges, a new zero-emissions truck industry is growing, and many electric truck models are now cheaper to operate than traditional diesel trucks. Electric trucks have begun winning over skeptics as battery technology continues to improve and fleet owners increasingly look to replace diesel trucks with battery electric models. With analysts projecting significant growth in the electric heavy-duty truck market, the industry may be in the midst of a fundamental evolution.

Diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks are harmful to the environment and public health, and communities of color disproportionately bear the brunt of these impacts.

  • Trucks are responsible for 28 percent of the climate pollution from transportation, the biggest source of emissions in the U.S.
    • Heavy-duty vehicles accounted for 78 percent of on-road diesel black carbon emissions in 2017, even though they made up less than a quarter of the diesel vehicle fleet.
  • Heavy-duty vehicles are the largest contributor to vehicle emissions of nitrous oxide (NOx), accounting for 86 percent of on-road diesel NOx emissions in 2015. 
    • A single line-haul truck emits the NOx equivalent of 100 cars for each mile driven in urban driving.
  • NOx and PM2.5 pollution disproportionately affect communities of color: in California, Black Americans are exposed to 43 percent more of this pollution than white Americans.
    • By 2023, diesel pollution is projected to cause 8,000 deaths, 3,700 heart attacks, hundreds of thousands of respiratory ailments and nearly $1 trillion in economic damages.

Regulations have proved to cut emissions and achieve public health outcomes, and new clean truck standards are being implemented across the country.

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to propose new rules on emissions standards from heavy-duty vehicles in early 2022.
    • EPA last revised its NOx standards for heavy-duty trucks and engines in 2001, which led to a 40 percent reduction in NOx emissions from 2007 to 2017. But as the agency explains, “there is more work to be done.”
    • Next-generation heavy-duty trucks regulation would avoid 4 million deaths attributable to diesel emissions in G20 countries alone.
  • States are also piloting their own clean trucks standards: in 2021 California adopted the Advanced Clean Truck rule, followed by Washington, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
    • These rules require a growing percentage of all new medium- and heavy-duty trucks to produce zero emissions starting in 2025, and manufacturers will be required to raise zero-emissions truck sales by 40-75 percent by 2035.
  • California and Oregon also adopted a Heavy-Duty Omnibus rule, which sets new fuel economy standards and requires fossil fuel-powered vehicles to reduce NOx emissions by 90 percent by 2027. 
    • These reductions add up to $36 billion in statewide health benefits from 3,900 avoided premature deaths and 3,150 hospitalizations from 2022 to 2050, according to an analysis by the NRDC.

It is possible and economical to cut trucking emissions by accelerating the shift to electric trucks powered by clean energy.

  • Today, medium- and long-haul electric trucks are 13 percent cheaper to own than diesel trucks, and can be up to 50 percent cheaper to own by 2030.
    • Falling prices of electric vehicle batteries mean that owners of Class 8 long-haul electric trucks can save up to $200,000 over the life of each truck.
  • Because of these falling costs, the electric heavy-duty truck market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 73 percent through 2026.
    • Kenworth Truck Co. reports that orders for its medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks have tripled between November 2021 and January 2022.
    • Truck companies who have already begun transitioning to electric fleets are reporting positive experiences.
  • This market momentum is expected to continue surging as more manufacturers — including BYD, Volvo, Peterbilt, Daimler, and Nikola — roll out new electric Class 8 models.