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Road freight sustainability expert: ‘We really don’t have a good plan’

‘Great minds and great experts’ must come together

FreightWaves recently chatted with Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, about decarbonization challenges the road freight sector faces.

Sperling worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a couple of years and in the Peace Corps in Honduras on urban planning and transportation issues. For the past few decades, he has been a civil engineering and environmental science and policy professor.

The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis works on all aspects of transportation, policy, environment, freight, electric vehicles (EVs), energy use and climate change, Sperling said. It also hosts the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This question-and-answer interview was edited for clarity and length.

FREIGHTWAVES: What solutions will the road freight sector need to decarbonize?

SPERLING: “There’s two major components. One is the technology, and the other is the operations.

“When I was put in charge of what they called ’freight efficiency’ for about a year and a half, we focused on, ‘How do you reduce the footprint of freight without using technology strategies?’ And I have to tell you, we made very little progress.

“The technology part is much easier to envision and accomplish. What it really means is electrification of freight vehicles with batteries, with hydrogen fuel cells and, in some cases, using low-carbon biofuels.

“I think batteries are going to play the lead role. I think hydrogen has an opportunity to play a major role if companies start investing. I think low-carbon liquid biofuels will definitely play a role because there are many applications, like long-haul trucking where liquid fuels have a big advantage.

“Freight is a lot harder than most other sectors to deal with, even on a technology basis.”

FREIGHTWAVES: How did you get involved with climate-related transportation issues?

SPERLING: “I went to graduate school to study transportation, and the environment and energy aspect seemed really compelling. That brought me to environmental issues associated with energy use and transportation, and then more recently, air pollution.

“I’m also a board member for the California Air Resources Board, and that is all about environment, air pollution and climate. In the last 20 years, I started thinking about EVs and the environmental benefits, and it all kept evolving.

“My whole life has been devoted to this.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What policy and research challenges does road freight face on the path to environmental sustainability?

SPERLING: “The big issue is climate change, not just environmentally, but in terms of the future of our planet. We — the policy world, the whole community, the industry and the government — we really don’t have a good plan how to do it [decarbonize road freight].

“[Government] policy is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You need policy because right now electric trucks are more expensive to buy, and the total cost is still higher. Policy is putting a stake in the ground and putting everyone on notice that this is what we’re going to do. Then, the investments by the truck manufacturers, electric utilities and the fleets all start to align with those targets.

“Part of the policy challenge with freight is the interstate commerce clauses and jurisdiction of the federal government impede states from doing a lot of what they might want to do. Internationally, you have all the international trade rules that impede what the U.S. government can do.

“The problem is we don’t understand the freight system very well. When I say ‘we,’ I’m including industry itself, because there’s no one that integrates everything together. There are some companies that are more integrated than others, but the understanding and the expertise about how the entire freight system works is weak. 

“Even in the academia and research world, we don’t have the data to be able to do those kinds of analyses because so much of it is proprietary data. We need great minds and great experts and industry people to get together on this.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What additional decarbonization and electrification challenges are there?

SPERLING: “A lot of changes need to be made for this to succeed. The original equipment manufacturers have to be convinced, and I think they are convinced. It’s a question of how fast they’re developing their supply chains and their partnerships.

“There’s no big surprises about what needs to be done [with EV charging]. It really depends on the fleet. If you have your own chargers, then you can tailor it to the operations of your fleet. You can design your truck routes and truck usage to be better aligned with a more even consumption of electricity.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Where is the motivation for companies to change?

SPERLING: “The environment in some ways is a market externality. You don’t pay for the pollution you cause, and you’re not subjected to that. You emit that pollution, and other people suffer. There are many cases where there are direct benefits [to environmental action].

“[Many companies] are looking at it as a competitive advantage. They’re anticipating policy, and they’re anticipating markets. There’s not very many companies that do it for the public good. They have stakeholders, they have shareholders, and they have profit margins. They’re looking for their niche.

“Consumer-facing companies are sensitive to their image and their brand. Companies that are more consumer-facing will also embrace the environment because it’s good for their business.”

FREIGHTWAVES: As a California resident, what do you think California’s role is in decarbonization?

SPERLING: “California is clearly going to be leading on this. In California, in 2024, 9% of the Class 4 to 7 vocational truck sales must be zero-emission vehicles, and 5% of the tractor cabs must be zero-emission. By 2035, 75% of these Class 4 to 7 and 8 trucks must be zero-emission, and 40% of the tractors must be zero-emission.

“What’s motivating it is that the cost of batteries is coming down so fast that when you do a total cost of ownership analysis for trucks, within 10 years, the electric version of it is going to be cheaper to own and operate than a diesel version. The cost of electricity is less than the cost of diesel, and you have less maintenance as well.

“It’s clear that the feds are not going to follow exactly what California is doing, but we are seeing increasing interest in electrification of trucks of freight around the world.”

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.