Trucking Transformations

Photo Credit: Tesla

Photo Credit: Tesla

“Smokey, old diesels” – this summarizes a long-held perception of the trucking industry.  It has been, perhaps, a valid perception. Nevertheless, with electric transports entering the industry, opinions may be poised to change. Where has the trucking industry been and where is it going? How is geography going to impact the emergence of electric trucks?

Diesel exhaust has choked cities for decades. Diesel-powered transports have traditionally spewed up to 30 percent of the particulate matter (PM) in polluted urban air (Toy, Graham, & Hammit, 2000). Particulate matter in the United States alone caused 15,000 premature deaths each year (Nel, 2005). Diesel PM has been tied to increases in emphysema, asthma, and heart disease. Moreover, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust particles also poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant (American Lung Association, n.d.).

Likewise, trucks have conventionally comprised about 10 percent of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in America (Toy, Graham, & Hammit, 2000). Exposure to ground-level ozone – for which NOx is a precursor – has been linked to lung inflammation and decreased immunity (American Lung Association, n.d.). Furthermore, diesel exhaust is an irritant to mucosal membranes (eyes, nose, throat) and can precipitate coughs, headaches, lightheadedness, nausea, and allergies.

Air pollution and public health, however, are not the only concerns weighing heavy-duty vehicle transportation. Trucking accounts for approximately 20 percent of North America’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (U.S. Department of Transportation, n.d.).  The preponderant GHG’s include water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). The primary GHG’s associated with trucking are CO2, CH4, N2O, and HC (US EPA, 2010).

In the interest of public health and environmental preservation, curtailing freight truck emissions is evidently prudent. In March of 2011, President Obama announced – with liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks as a backdrop – a public-private partnership aimed at reducing gasoline and diesel consumption in large commercial fleets. Trucking companies throughout Canada and the United States began branding themselves “green” by embracing LNG engine technology. LNG, however, has its own issues. Though inherently cleaner burning than diesel, LNG is still a fossil fuel. While natural gas is touted as having an environmental advantage over diesel in terms of life cycle (Riva, D’Angelosante, & Trebeschi, 2006), the ability to extract copious volumes of natural gas from vast shale reserves in North America still poses problems, including aquifer contamination, water use, fracking fluid impacts, land industrialization, and fugitive emissions (Verrastro & Branch, 2010).  And although LNG has had a rather exemplary safety record, fears about attacks, vapour cloud fires, and accidental spills have been raised.

Electrics, hybrids, LNG’s, diesels with particulate filters/selective catalytic reduction – technology has always driven change in the trucking industry. Simpler solutions –reducing truck idling time, installing speed limiters, training “green” drivers, and improving service inefficiencies – also reduce fossil fuel consumption. Yet, an even more obvious answer exists: reduce vehicle miles driven! How senseless it seems to transport bottles of water thousands of miles when, for many, potable water is available from a kitchen faucet. How peculiar that we opt to move millions of pounds of food that could be grown in backyard gardens. Regardless, the foremost dilemma with solutions aimed at resolving these peculiarities is that it places the burden on humanity; it would encompass a difficult social paradigm shift.

Fortunately for humanity, technology marches on. The new year rolled in with big trucking news – the Tesla semi-truck. Though not the first electric semi-truck, the Tesla has an enviable range of up to 800 km (Clouthier, 2018). Ultimately, however, geography will determine any realized range. Temperature, wind, grade, payload, traffic, and topography will all influence actual range. Regardless, fewer fossil-fuel-powered trucks on the road is good news in terms of air quality and GHG emissions (assuming renewable electric generation). Again, this assumption is highly dependent upon geography; it obviously makes more sense to run electric trucks in areas where electricity is generated from renewable sources.

Even with consideration of all these existing variables, there is still one major hurdle electric trucks must overcome, one that that share with passenger vehicles – adequate recharging networks. In a recent paper that highlights strategies to increase electric vehicle uptake, the absence of recharging stations is earmarked as a key concern among potential customers. Surveys indicate that some drivers are more concerned about inadequate infrastructure than vehicle cost (Broadbent, Drozdzewski & Metternicht, 2017). The authors go on to state that faster transition to electric vehicle adoption should include appropriate legislation, sufficient recharging networks, procurement programs, and information programs. Adoption of electric semi-trucks would surely benefit from similar programs. Realizing these objectives will not be easy, but certainly worth it – for the health of the public and the planet.


American Lung Association. (n.d.). Health Effects of Diesel Exhaust. Retrieved 2018 from Air Toxicology and Epidemiology:

Broadbent GH, Drozdzewski D, Metternicht G. (2017). Electric vehicle adoption: An analysis of best practice and pitfalls for policymaking from experiences of Europe and the US. Geography Compass. 2017;e12358.

Clouthier, D. (2018). Using electric trucks for what today’s technology allows. Retrieved 2018 from Truck News:

Nel, A. (2005). Air Pollution – Related Illness: Effects of Particles. Science, 308, 804-806.

Riva, A., D’Angelosante, S., & Trebeschi, C. (2006). Natural gas and the environmental results of life cycle assessment. Energy, 31(1), 138-148.

Toy, E., Graham, J. D., & Hammit, J. K. (2000). Fueling Heavy Trucks: Diesel or Natural Gas? Retrieved 2017 from Harvard School of Public Health:

U.S. Department of Transportation. (2011). Transportation and Climate Change Clearinghouse. Retrieved 2017 from:

U.S. EPA. (2010). Regulations and Standards: Heavy-Duty Regulations. Retrieved 2017 from Transportation & Climate:

Verrastro, F., & Branch, C. (2010). Developing America’s Unconventional Gas Resources: Benefits and Challenges. CSIS Energy & National Security Program

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