Dear EarthTalk: It’s obvious that our cars are getting greener every year, but what about 18 wheelers? — Pauline McRae, Sebastian, FL
We all rely on heavy duty trucks to haul as much as 80 percent of the goods we use and consume. But those ubiquitous 18-wheelers are also a big contributor to the overall pollution footprint of the transportation sector, given they get only 4-8 miles per gallon on average and travel large distances transporting heavy loads. Currently, some two million big rigs make up just 5 percent of the vehicles on American roads while accounting for upwards of 20 percent of the transportation sector’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
But, like with cars, things are changing quickly for big rigs. The U.S. got serious about reducing truck emissions back in 2010 when the Department of Energy launched its SuperTruck Initiative to improve heavy-duty truck freight efficiency by 50 percent. Some of the technologies that have started to trickle down out of the SuperTruck program into trucks on the road include predictive cruise control, chassis “light-weighting” and battery-assisted air conditioning systems to reduce overnight engine idling. These upgrades are saving operators tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs annually — the average long distance American trucker spends some $70,000 a year on fuel — as well as shaving off greenhouse gas emissions.
Then in August 2016 the Obama administration announced aggressive new standards requiring big rigs plying U.S. roads to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent by 2027, which should save more than a billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere over the next decade — that is, if it’s not overturned (as threatened) by Trump.
To get the ball rolling, the Department of Energy launched SuperTruck II, pledging to match commitments of up to $20 million by manufacturers working on even more cutting-edge technologies to boost the efficiency of big rigs. Peterbilt, Navistar and other truck makers are using these matching funds to bolster efforts to develop newer technologies including active aerodynamics, cylinder deactivation, hybridization, electrified engine components and alternative engine designs.
Regardless, Tesla will be ready with its new Semi. This futuristic all-electric big rig incorporates proprietary lithium ion batteries to power four independent motors — and promises the lowest energy cost per mile in the world of trucking. The Semi also features enhanced autopilot to help avoid collisions, a centered driving position in a cockpit designed to maximize visibility and control, and a low center of gravity to prevent rollovers, among many other forward-thinking features.
In the meantime, truckers with regular old big rigs can save money on fuel and reduce emissions by adopting better day-to-day practices, such as changing gears gently, avoiding sudden braking and acceleration, and slowing down — a truck can use 25 percent less fuel by driving 65 miles per hour instead of 75 mph.
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways we can encourage more commuters to ditch their cars in favor of bikes? — Dennis Northrup, Avon, CT
One of the best things we can do as individuals to fight climate change is to reduce the number of miles we drive in our fossil-fuel powered cars. But replacing those car rides with more fuel-efficient options isn’t so easy, especially if you don’t live near a transit hub. Given all the new bike lane infrastructure across the country and the availability of battery-assisted bicycles to help you around, there’s never been a better time to ditch the car in favor of pedal power.
If you’ve only got a short way to go, your good old bike might work just fine. But if you need to get further than you’re comfortable riding under your own power, why not upgrade to something with battery assistance? You can retrofit your current conventional bike with a battery-powered rear wheel, such as Superpedestrian’s Copenhagen Wheel ($1,499), lovingly referred to as the “Two-Wheeled Tesla,” given its sleek design, Bluetooth connectivity and biometric monitoring. Or DIYers might prefer to spend their weekend tinkering with Aosom’s battery-powered rear-wheel replacement kit ($219) instead.
If you’re ready to buy a new electric-assist bike, there’s a lot to choose from. Some top choices include Stromer’s ST2 ($6,500), Elby’s 9-Speed ($3,700), the Espin Sport 350W ($2,000) or Raleigh’s Superbe iE ($1,700). City slickers might prefer Brooklyness’ CMYK 5.0 Folding Electric Bike ($999), which pedal-assists for 50 miles per charge and can fold up into a neat little 25-pound bundle when you get there. Brooklyness is also getting ready to release the first production models of its new helmet design, the Classon, which has sensors built in to detect cars approaching your blind spots, motion-activated brake and turn signals to keep drivers and pedestrians in the know about where you’re going, and a video camera to document your adventures.
Another way technology is facilitating bicycle commuting is through the release of various apps to help riders optimize their routing. For instance, Lanespotter aims to be the Waze of cycling by providing riders with real-time data to find bike lanes and trails nearby, filtering mapping options based on other cyclists’ routing choices and safety recommendations. If you live in Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, St. Louis or Washington, D.C., you can download and start using Lanespotter (free) today.
And then there’s bike sharing, a growing phenomenon from coast-to-coast whereby riders can pick up a bike in one part of town and drop it off in another to speed up their commute. New York-based Motivate has designed and implemented bike share networks in nine U.S. cities to date, with the largest in New York (10,000 bikes) and San Francisco (7,000 bikes). A typical ride on one of Motivate’s bikes costs $3, and many of the systems are integrated with larger transit networks. For instance, Bay Area riders can pay for their “GoBike” using the same refillable Clipper card that gets them onto BART trains and MUNI buses.