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Commercial vehicle suppliers brace for regulatory impact

Jan. 28, 2021
Major policy challenges for the industry in 2021 will likely include the transportation bill and the electrification and emissions mandates that stem from it. Suppliers should also be careful not to minimize President Biden’s Buy American provisions.

Under President Joe Biden, commercial vehicle suppliers can expect a greater push toward vehicle electrification, a rollout of stronger measures to fight climate change, a push for more “Buy American” provisions, transportation reauthorization, and the list goes on. 

“Make no mistake about it, there is no absence of challenges in Washington, D.C.,” explained Ann Wilson, senior vice president of government affairs for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA). “Commercial vehicle suppliers are the most regulated part of the MEMA family, and in 2021, we will face everything from COVID legislation to transportation reauthorization.”

During this year’s virtual Heavy Duty Aftermarket Dialogue, the daylong conference that kicks off the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association’s (HDMA) Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week, Wilson pointed out that as the Biden administration alters the conversation on minimum wage, immigration reform, and a Buy American mentality, MEMA’s overall message in Washington, D.C., will emphasize the importance of operating in a global economy.

On Jan. 25, Biden signed an executive order to strengthen Buy American provisions. The executive order directs agencies to close loopholes in how domestic content is measured and increase domestic content development and requirements. Existing Buy American rules establish a domestic content threshold – the amount of a product that must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify under Buy American law. This executive order directs an increase in both the threshold and the price preferences for domestic goods – the difference in price over which government can buy a product from a non-U.S supplier.  It also updates how government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America.

“The Buy American program has long been popular with both Republicans and Democrats,” Wilson said. “We expect efforts to continue to mandate this in transportation reauthorization. This would mean that local, state and federal governments would be required to buy U.S. manufactured goods. In the past, this has limited some manufacturers' ability to participate in these programs.”

Wilson, who pointed out that suppliers are the largest employer of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., with over 900,000 direct jobs in all 50 states, stressed that in order for the industry to continue to prosper and provide jobs, policymakers must recognize that CV suppliers operate in a global economy.

“Protecting a global industry does not mean we turn our backs on U.S. jobs and opportunities,” Wilson said. “Rather, we must embrace the role that strong, global industries have in a vibrant economy and workforce.”

Issues at play

First and foremost, Biden has made it a point to address the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution. Wilson noted that through an emergency temporary standard related to the pandemic, Biden will likely mandate specific actions by businesses impacting workforce and workplace requirements. 

After that, Biden is expected to shift his focus on transportation reauthorization, immigration reform, trade, and possibly a new tax policy. Wilson emphasized the importance of the industry’s vigilance on the impact that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will have on aluminum tariffs, as well as tariffs on goods from China.

At the same time, Congress will consider transportation spending and reauthorizing the nation’s transportation system, which will address:

The industry should expect to see strong push for mandates of safety technologies, including automatic emergency braking and a new standard for rear underride guards on trucks. The Biden administration could also re-evaluate the new hours of service rules and pilot programs that would expand the commercial driver pool to younger drivers.

“We will also have a fight on our hands about automation,” Wilson added.

Over the last four years, federal debate on regulating automated vehicles has been divided, she said. The Department of Transportation has issued best practice guidelines but has not moved forward on mandated regulations. Congress, on the other hand, has been unable to get enough votes to pass legislation on automated vehicles.

“Many in the safety community are not committed to the benefits of automation, and many will oppose legislation,” Wilson said. “Our efforts to include commercial vehicles in any federal automated vehicle legislation has been thwarted by the unions that saw it as an attack on driver jobs.”

Government fleet goes electric

Regarding energy and the environment, the Biden administration has been vocal about a national emissions policy that will impact all vehicle classes from light duty to heavy duty. Biden has made it a point that his administration will focus on creating a pathway to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050. And on Jan. 25, he began moving forward on that promise by announcing his intent to electrify the entire U.S. government vehicle fleet.

“We believe that we should play in this conversation as managing the path toward electrification and push for the elements that the supplier industry needs to be successful,” Wilson advised.

MEMA has maintained the industry’s need for increased research and development investments, as well as an investment for incentives for consumers, including fleets, to buy vehicles equipped with new technologies and for changing infrastructure. Wilson added that the industry will also need investments for training workers in a technologically changing manufacturing world.

She further emphasized that any new standards must be performance-based and must have sufficient lead time for the entire industry.

“The question becomes, is it possible to arrive at a sweet spot,’” Wilson said. “It is unlikely that the heavy-duty industry will come out on the other side of this debate without some form of mandate toward electrification.”

In response to Biden’s announcement to electrify the entire U.S. government vehicle fleet, Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), touted the move as a “welcome step toward creating the demand needed to develop a domestic minerals-to-markets supply chain for EVs and batteries” in the U.S.

According to SAFE’s latest report on global transportation, China currently holds control over today’s EV and battery supply chain. The report points out that China holds direct or indirect control of 70% of the world’s lithium supply; China produces 61% of the cathodes and 83% of the anodes used in batteries, while the U.S. produces 0%; and more than twice as many EVs are sold cumulatively in China compared to the U.S.

“The global transportation system is going electric, and the current supply chain is dominated by China,” Diamond noted. “This announcement recognizes the need for America to compete with her biggest strategic rival across the entire supply chain, so we do not become reliant upon policy decisions made in Beijing for the materials, components and vehicles we will rely on to keep our economy moving in the 21st century.”

Fight for funding

Another area to keep an eye on is transportation reauthorization, where the Biden administration is expected to increase the minimum wage for transportation projects and to promote the Buy American agenda.

“So, how do we pay for all these programs,” Wilson asked.

The Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, meaning Congress will likely consider a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax to help fund infrastructure projects. VMT and tolling alike have been widely opposed by the American Trucking Associations and other trucking groups.

“We need to consider the equity of any of these proposals, but in order to pay for the program, we are going to have to come to the table with ideas of our own,” Wilson advised.

In addition, Wilson pointed out that Biden has expressed his intent to increase corporate tax rates, create corporate manufacturing repatriation incentives, and increase the top tax bracket rate.

“We know that moderates in both the House and the Senate will be our best friends as we combat efforts to nullify all or part of the 2018 tax reform package,” she said. “Although all three proposals are problematic, repatriation is concerning as we don’t know what it entails. Incentives might work for some [suppliers] but does it mean penalties for operations outside of the U.S.? And will it lead to retaliation by other countries?”

Moving forward, Wilson believes the biggest policy challenge for the industry in 2021 will be the transportation bill and the electrification and emissions mandates that stem from it. She also warned suppliers not to minimize Biden’s Buy American provisions and how minimum wage reform will impact corporate America and suppliers’ manufacturing floors. 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore is the Editor in Chief of FleetOwner magazine. She has reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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