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How California uses tech, partnerships to nail trucking emissions violators

“We’re trying to get a bigger bang for our buck”

(Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

  • Data mining, sensors, and other software and hardware solutions are changing the way California air quality regulators are enforcing trucking emissions regulations.
  • Partnerships with local and national enforcement agencies to catch emissions violations also on the rise.

The tech revolution that has hit the trucking industry over the past decade is likewise reshaping the way air quality regulators do their job. 

A slew of telematics services have come on board to help fleets monitor operations, including emissions control systems. Simultaneously, data collection and sensor tools are giving regulators better visibility into fleets violating emissions regulations, yielding more efficient and effective enforcement.

“Historically, we would be out in the field doing individual truck inspections, and then we would do fleet audits,” said Heather Quiros, chief of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Diesel Programs Enforcement Branch.

The problem with that approach is CARB doesn’t have enough people to physically inspect all the trucks, said Quiros, who spoke to FreightWaves recently about the agency’s heavy-duty diesel emissions enforcement program.

Conducting fleet audits is a lengthy process, she explained, and “we weren’t getting enough reach” using physical inspections and audits alone. So agency staff “added in more data and technology to become more efficient, and identify what appear to be noncompliant fleets and vehicles, and then targeting our enforcement on those vehicles.”

 “We’re trying to get a bigger bang for our buck,” she said.

Truck and Bus rule

CARB is arguably the most powerful air quality regulator in the country, and among the key regulations its 40-person diesel enforcement division is charged with enforcing is the Truck and Bus rule. 

That regulation, passed in 2008, requires heavy-duty diesel trucks to replace older engines with cleaner engines on a phased-in schedule based on the model year of the engine.

When enforcement of the rule started in 2012, staff focused on audits to catch violators, Quiros said. But after compliance rates started to plateau at around 77%, the agency in 2018 shifted to what it describes as a more “streamlined” process, diving into data — from vehicle registration, compliance-reporting and inspection databases — to identify noncompliant trucks.

That effort boosted compliance to 86% percent in 2019, according to CARB’s most recent enforcement report, released in June. (The next report will be released in June 2021). 

To rein in the remaining trucks, a new law took effect this year automatically preventing vehicles that are noncompliant with the rule from registering their vehicles with the California DMV.

As of April 2020, the latest date for which information is available, 23,673 registration holds had been placed on noncompliant trucks. (All told, about 420,000 heavy-duty trucks are registered with the California DMV.)

Also according to the enforcement report, as of April 2020, the streamlined efforts yielded around $5 million in penalties, used to fund air quality improvement programs.

Partnerships cast a wide net

Among the companies involved in the most recent CARB trucking emissions settlements is Morgan Southern, a former subsidiary of Roadrunner Transportation Systems Inc. (OTC: RRTS). Morgan Southern, headquartered in Georgia, was fined $117,000 for operating heavy-duty diesel vehicles in California that lacked the diesel particulate filters required by the Truck and Bus rule.

Another, Idaho-based  Boise Cascade Co., failed to verify that the carriers it hired to transport goods in California complied with the Truck and Bus rule. The company will pay a $175,000 civil penalty and has agreed to use compliant trucks.

CARB identified these offenses with the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a partnership that might seem a case of odd bedfellows given the high-profile clashes between CARB and the EPA under the Trump administration over clean vehicle regulations

But the state-federal collaboration, in existence since 2012, has been responsible for catching some of the higher-profile out-of-state violators.

The Roadrunner and Bosie Cascade violations were discovered as a result of “tips and data mining,” an EPA spokesperson told FreightWaves.

Partnerships with national and local agencies have been a big part of the enforcement effort, said Quiros, with the collaboration with the DMV a notable example. 

She said the division is now looking to expand its partnerships to include local prosecutors interested in enforcing air quality regulations. That outreach coincides with increased scrutiny of out-of-state violators (using International Registration Plan data) as well as other programs aiming to slash pollutants from heavy-duty trucks operating in California.

Telematics, automation on the docket as CARB pilots new enforcement technologies 

A case in point is CARB’s smog check programs, namely the Heavy-Duty Vehicle Inspection and the Periodic Smoke Inspection programs. Designed to ensure vehicle emissions control systems are operating correctly (and haven’t been tampered with), the programs feature random checks and require trucking fleet owners to conduct annual smoke “opacity” inspections, maintain records of the tests, and repair offending vehicles.

According to CARB estimates, heavy-duty trucks contribute approximately 58% of the state’s transportation NOx emissions and about 82% of particulate matter emissions.

Supplementing roadside tests, CARB enforcement now is using data collection and sensor tools to allow location-based testing. Specifically, it is piloting the use of an unattended automated license plate reader, part of an automated screening system that registers truck emissions as vehicles pass by.

These Portable Emissions Acquisition System (PEAQS) units are mounted to existing infrastructure in communities most impacted by high-volume truck traffic, Quiros explained, declining to reveal the location of the device currently in the pilot phase. 

CARB has found the data collected by the system to be accurate in identifying vehicles with high emissions, according to Quiros, adding that the system is in its infancy. “It’s pretty recently that we’ve actually started sending letters to identify high emitters and asking for additional information to demonstrate compliance before taking enforcement action.” 

More tech solutions are coming. In August, CARB staff held a public workshop to discuss concepts for a new heavy-duty inspection and maintenance program that will take effect in 2022. One option under consideration is a telematics testing method in which data collected from an onboard diagnostics or telematics device is transmitted to the vendor’s database. That information would then be submitted to CARB.

COVID impacts

Quiros said the new technologies have come in handy during the pandemic, when staff have been even more limited in their opportunities to go out into the field. At the same time, the pandemic is making it difficult to stay abreast of certain vehicle categories. For example, CARB doesn’t have the same type of DMV registration data for transportation refrigerated units (TRUs) as it does for trucks.

Compliance rates with the agency’s TRU regulations is relatively low. In 2019, CARB field inspectors conducted 2,064 TRU inspections and issued 933 citations, according to the enforcement report. Because of the virus, the agency did not deploy any field inspectors this year.

CARB is working on new rulemaking that would mandate zero-emissions TRU technology at certain facilities as well as establish the necessary charging infrastructure.

“Generally compliance with TRUs needs to improve, and so we are trying to identify ways we can do that,” Quiros said.

That same logic governs the enforcement division’s overall approach.

“Rather than picking a shot in the dark as to whether trucks were compliant,” Quiros said, “we are using more technology and data to try and get a picture of their compliance status beforehand and then targeting our resources and enforcement on those that appear to be more noncompliant.”

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California emissions law brings “catch me if you can” era to a close

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Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]