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'Clean' truck regs, strong rate environment likely for 2021

Jan. 12, 2021
President-elect Joe Biden has emphasized the importance of achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050, and the industry will be paying close attention to environmental initiatives that could impact trucking after the Jan. 20 inauguration.

This is the second article in a two-part 2021 outlook series. Read part one here.

Outside of the regulations coming out of the incoming Biden-led Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration after the Jan. 20 U.S. presidential inauguration, industry stakeholders are paying close attention to environmental initiatives that could impact commercial trucking. Analysts are also projecting continued growth and a favorable rate environment for trucking companies throughout 2021.

President-elect Joe 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 with an incoming super majority, as Democrats gained control of the House, Senate, and White House, Biden should have very minor roadblocks—if any—when it comes to implementing his environmental agenda.

Erik Neandross, CEO of Gladstein Neandross & Associates (GNA), the firm that organizes the Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo, explained there has been some discussion making climate change a major part of any sweeping transportation infrastructure bills. Former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, who has been a staunch supporter of cutting fossil fuels and greening agriculture, has been tapped to become Secretary of Transportation.

“I would expect the same with commercial fleets and trucking as well,” Neandross told FleetOwner. “How that manifests itself in new regulations is a little hard to tell.”

Neandross pointed to possible acceleration of the federal Cleaner Trucks Initiative under Biden. The initiative, currently being processed by the Trump administration, aims to ensure emissions reductions occur in the real world for all types of truck operation. Notably, the rulemaking offers opportunities to reduce ambient particulate matter and ozone across the country by reducing NOx pollution from heavy-duty trucks.

In the last couple of years, California has been leading the charge on aggressive policies around reducing transportation emissions. Neandross suggested that under Biden, there is a potential for harmonization between federal emissions reductions efforts and California’s efforts.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), for instance, adopted the first-in-the-nation new clean-truck standard on June 25, 2020. CARB plans to mandate that all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are 100% zero-emission by 2045 “where feasible,” with 2035 the target set for drayage trucks. New Jersey is the first state to officially adopt CARB’s Advanced Clean Truck regulation, while 13 additional U.S. states have begun to sign onto these policies.

“There is little doubt that it will ultimately matriculate into the federal conversation with the new Biden administration and super majority’s big focus on climate,” Neandross explained. “I think we will start to see a number of policies, incentives, programs, research and development, and all kinds of general activity across the board.” 

Equally as important, according to Neandross, is that major commercial truck manufacturers are spending tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on their electrification strategies.

“There is no signal that is going to slow down at all,” he pointed out. “That will continue into the future and will be aided by the variety of carrots and sticks at the federal and state levels.” 

The big hurdle, however, is whether electric and zero-emission commercial vehicles make financial sense for broader fleet adoption. 

"Right now, we are not seeing a clear and consistent TCO (total cost of ownership) that is equivalent to or better than diesel or natural gas," Neandross said.

However, since March 2020, the last-mile delivery segment, which was already seeing a boom in opportunities before the pandemic, has continued to grow in recent months as Americans rely more on e-commerce. And that is a segment rife with opportunity for electric vehicles. 

Related to last mile, Stifel Transportation Group analysts referred to e-commerce as "the big winner" in 2020. The companies hauling consumer goods, especially in small package quantities, outperformed freight carriers who move primarily industrial goods and/or service the service industry, Stifel noted.

Favorable rates

Avery Vise, vice president of trucking at FTR Transportation Intelligence, advised that moving forward this year, FTR analysts are concerned over what could happen on the goods side of the economy once the pandemic does come under control and people start traveling and spending more on leisure and hospitality services again.

In 2020, spending on goods held up, whereas spending on services collapsed, which was part of the big story as to what happened over the summer with the spot market and freight, Vise explained.

“When we see a reversal of that, what kind of an impact will that have? We think that impact is going to be at worst a wash because we think the increased deployment from the leisure and hospitality industries will offset any diversion impact,” Vise said. “There are some questions about where we are that we can speculate about, but we won’t really know until we decided the pandemic is over.”

Overall, Vise said things “look really good” in the van markets—dry van and refrigerated—which are tied to the consumer market. And over the course of the year, Vise projected that the basic inputs of demand and capacity seem to “very much be in favor of trucking companies in terms of profitability and rate environment.” 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She 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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