The economy mandate for medium and heavy duty trucks, signed by President Obama in a May 21 Rose Garden ceremony, has been greeted by the industry with broad support. This is maybe a little surprising,
especially since the president was quoted as saying: "We estimate that we can increase fuel economy by as much as 25 percent in tractor-trailers using technologies that already exist."

I have to say that if any engine manufacturer could, today, increase fuel economy 25 percent, it would be the first to do so and then sit back as every trucking executive beat a frenzied path to its door to avail him- or herself of such a competitive advantage. And they would likely pay a hefty premium for the privilege. To my mind the president's comment is mildly insulting, insinuating that the engine makers are just sitting on the technology and colluding with the wicked oil companies in efforts to make their customers purchase more fuel than they need.

But I guess the assembled executives from Navistar, Daimler Trucks North America, Volvo, Cummins and the American Trucking Associations at the signing can see the writing on the wall: The administration is going to mandate some sort of CAFE standard on medium- and heavy-duty, so they might as well embrace the issue and get some say in how the legislation is crafted.

In fact, surrounded by these executives, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum calling for legislation by July 30, 2011. He has asked the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to work together to produce rules covering emissions and fuel standards and present a workable plan. The new standards will start in 2014 and be fully implemented by 2018.

Truck and engine manufacturers have already had input, working for the last 18 months with EPA on the plan. No details are available yet, but the principles of the program were outlined in a May 18 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson from Martin Daum of Daimler Trucks.

While a 25 percent reduction may seem like a huge step, it all depends where the baselines are drawn. Using non-aerodynamic standard configurations, significant gains can be made using just SmartWay technologies and practices that may already offer fuel savings in the 20- to 25- percent region over such a baseline.

Of course, fleets that want to stay in business in tough times like we have seen lately are already doing these things. But a CAFE-type standard is targeted at the manufacturer, not the user. So maybe it won't be so bad on the industry after all. However, the steps already made by end-user fleets tend to make a big hole in the claims of fuel to be saved and CO2 to be reduced by the mandate.

Read more about the future of fuel economy in the June issue of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine.