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Trailer costs could rise without action on emissions standards

2021 model year trailers at risk, manufacturers warn. Credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Truck trailer manufacturers are losing patience with federal regulators that have yet to decide on a lawsuit filed three years ago and that could affect the cost and production of 2021 model year equipment.

The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA) sought a review in 2016 of the Obama administration’s Phase 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards, rolled out jointly that year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The rule imposed first-time fuel economy standards on trailers, which are set to go into effect in January 2021. Because trailers do not emit pollution, TTMA contended the agencies lacked the authority to regulate them and that the rule should not apply. However, the EPA and NHTSA requested that TTMA’s lawsuit be held in abeyance while the agencies reconsidered the rules, which could — depending on the outcome — render TTMA’s review unnecessary.

“But the agencies have made no discernible progress and there is no prospect of progress in sight,” TTMA’s representatives asserted in a Dec. 3 court filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “Trailers are highly customized and are ordered months in advance because they are built to order, meaning that TTMA’s members will begin taking orders for 2021 in the coming months. TTMA’s members need to know whether the rule will apply to the trailers they sell for the 2021 model year.”

TTMA President Jeff Sims underscored that concern, pointing out that new priorities at the agencies could mean more delay is likely. “Trailer manufacturers need clarity before orders start coming in for 2021 models,” Sims told FreightWaves. “We are asking the court to proceed ahead on a schedule that we hope will result in a decision as soon as possible.”

New trailers can cost roughly $25,000 to $50,000. The Phase 2 GHG requirements include performance standards that trailer manufacturers can meet by equipping them with aerodynamic features that reduce aerodynamic drag, low rolling-resistance tires, tire pressure monitoring systems and weight reduction measures — tacking on thousands of dollars more to prices paid by trucking companies.

While those new features can help long-haul carriers save fuel costs, those savings don’t stack up for hauls moving at lower speeds, according to industry reports, and instead merely add weight and potentially displace freight.

Monthly orders of dry van (blue line) and reefer (green line) trailers, Dec. 2016 to Dec. 2019. Source: SONAR

Citing the uncertainty caused by the delays, the state of California, which had joined onto TTMA’s lawsuit, announced on Dec. 3 it would be suspending enforcement of its own set of GHG truck trailer standards for at least through calendar years 2020 and 2021. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) was to have started enforcing California’s rule on January 1, 2020.

“CARB will continue to administer the California GHG trailer regulation on a voluntary basis, including processing and approving applications to certify 2020 and subsequent model year trailers, which will assist both trailer and equipment manufacturers seeking to comply with the trailer requirements in future model years and entities seeking to purchase new 2020 and subsequent model year California certified trailers,” the agency stated.

CARB said it will give manufacturers at least six months’ notice before starting to enforce its own GHG trailer standards. 

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.