Clean vehicle technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, but the direction it is going in is not always clear. For the panelists in a discussion about global advanced transportation trends, the exciting space may need more certainty.
At the recent ACT Expo in Long Beach, California, a panel of industry leaders from Navistar, UPS, Cummins, Honda, and the California Air Resources Board spoke about global trends that are accelerating advanced transportation innovation. Each panelist described the challenges of staying on top of the evolving clean vehicle technologies space while also adapting to different needs in markets all over the world.
Clean Tech is Global
While the U.S. is still a leader in low-emissions vehicle technology, China and Western Europe are also driving the conversation – and in some cases taking a lead role. Meritor CEO and President Jay Craig, in a keynote address leading into the panel discussion, said that China was going head-on into clean technologies and that 60% of transit buses in the country are already fully electric.
But he had a warning for companies that fail to see the shift toward clean tech that is still on the horizon. He explained that unless transportation companies invest in the future, they might find themselves on the outside looking in.
While he said that it wasn’t certain exactly which technologies and markets will become most prominent, it was up to business leaders to stay on top of it, or find themselves becoming obsolete. Referencing an infamous episode of Happy Days, he said that companies that dominate a market today could become eventually become obsolete.
“Don’t jump the shark with your companies,” said Craig. "I’m planning not to with ours.”
Invest and Analyze
The common thread between all of the representatives on the panel was a willingness to invest in clean technologies, even when it seemed that not all of their bets would pan out.
Tamara Baker, UPS chief sustainability officer and vice president of environmental affairs, said the company is currently testing a variety of technologies in its 9,100-vehicle "rolling laboratory" fleet. The company’s strategy is not only to try out every viable technology, but also to deploy each tech in places where it makes the most sense.
She said because UPS has 119,000 vehicles deployed across the globe, the company felt it needed to do all it could to reduce its impact on the environment. The company previously declared that it had a goal of reducing overall emissions 12% by 2025, all while the company continues to grow.
Too Many Clean-Power Choices?
Between fully electric, hybrid-electric, alternative fuels and cleaner traditional vehicles, it seems that the space is full of choices for transportation companies to focus on, and may even seem overwhelming. But all the panelists seemed to feel that for now, a multitude of choices was a good thing.
Julie Furber, executive director of electrification for Cummins, said choice is a good thing, and that in the end, the right tech will eventually come through and the path forward will be clearer.
Steve Center, vice president of environmental business development for American Honda, said that choice was the best way to figure out what works. The sentiment was also echoed by UPS’s Baker, who said that it was important to fail fast in a rapidly changing space.
There was some caution, however, as Steve Gilligan, North America vice president of product and vocational marketing for Navistar, described the challenge of investing while still providing a product that customers wanted. He said that with too many choices, it is hard for infrastructure to scale with the technologies. He also said that his customers won’t buy into trucks that they can't service as well, another difficulty when supporting technologies that are not yet established enough to provide satisfactory support to them.
The Changing Regulatory Landscape
While the discussion covered a global perspective, it also spent a lot of time talking local news. The state of California sees itself as a leader in emissions regulation, and it recently joined with 17 other states to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for recent rollbacks to fuel economy and emissions standards.
CARB Assistant Division Chief Analisa Bevan kicked off the conference by reading a statement from CARB Chair Mary Nichols explaining why the state feels the rollbacks were not made in good faith. But regardless which side ultimately comes out on top, the uncertainty creates an unstable business atmosphere for companies in the clean vehicle technology market.
Gilligan said that for International, multiple standards are a doomsday scenario for its investments in clean tech. He said the company wants a clear direction for compliance and that ideally International would like a single standard to follow – indicating no preference for more or less lenient regulations, just consistent and stable ones. Furber agreed, saying that Cummins also preferred a clear direction and a consistent timeline as well for compliance.
UPS was primarily interested in lowering emissions, but Barker also said that due diligence was important when implementing new regulations. She recalled a situation in Mexico City that banned certain vehicles from entering the city on certain days in order to reduce emissions. However, businesses ended up buying more vehicles in order to always be able to operate regardless of the day’s restrictions, resulting in an increase in emissions.
CARB’s Bevan told the other panelists that “getting off course could be disastrous.” While regulatory bodies like hers acknowledged the problems that have arisen along the way, she said that CARB is focused on its goal of helping the environment, and it wants to avoid anything that could derail regulations and take the mission off course.
Despite concerns, the panelists made it clear that no matter how it happens or how long it takes, the clean technology future is going to come. But for now, the market remains a Wild West of exciting technological innovation and unstable rules.