California is creating America’s largest market for electric trucks

The long road to a cleaner economy.
The long road to a cleaner economy.
Image: David McNew/Getty
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California’s air quality agency voted today (June 25) to pass the most sweeping regulations of electric commercial trucks in history. The “Advanced Clean Trucks” rule requires truck manufacturers to sell an increasing share of electric trucks each year, with the goal of making all new trucks sold in California zero-emission by 2045. 

“This is certainly a landmark rule,” says Nic Lutsey, US director of the International Council on Clean Transportation. “No government in the world has a direct requirement for electric trucks.”

The new rule puts a fire under an industry with little incentive to innovate: The market share for electric trucks remains well under 1%. The new rule by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) specifies all manufacturers must sell electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2024. By 2035, zero-emission trucks should account for 55% of medium-duty sales (including pickups) and 75% of heavy-duty vehicles. (Manufacturers unable to meet the standard can buy zero-emission vehicle credits.) Virtually all of California’s freight sector will have a zero-emission mandate by 2021, says law firm Earthjustice.

CARB says its goal is to foster “a self-sustaining zero-emission truck market,” like it has for passenger vehicles. In 2019, EVs and hybrids accounted for about 8% of California’s car sales—roughly half the US total. 

There are only about 200,000 electric trucks on the road today, Lutsey estimates, mostly light commercial vans, but interest is rising. In 2019, e-commerce giant Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030.

If CARB’s new rule succeeds, California will be a major new market. In 2024, at least 4,000 electric trucks will be sold in California, roughly 16% of the national total. By 2035, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates 300,000 electric trucks could be on California’s roads. CARB is also considering a follow-up vote to require corporations and government agencies to add electric trucks to their fleets.

The 10 companies likely to fall under the new rule are:

New rule, fresh air

Right now, half of California’s state’s greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution originate in the transportation sector. With emissions savings equivalent to taking millions of passenger vehicles off the road, the CARB rule will help the state reach its emissions goals of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The new rules will also go some way to addressing environmental racism. About a quarter of the racial disparity in heart attacks, asthma, ER visits, and death may be due to exposure to diesel fumes and air pollution. CARB estimates the rules, once implemented, will avoid hundreds of deaths and hospital visits through 2040, a benefit valued at $5.6 billion.  

At least eight US states (pdf) have signaled interest in adopting some version of the new rules. Thirteen US states already abide by California’s stricter air quality standards, a bloc accounting for more than a third of domestic GDP—and several will likely follow California’s lead on trucks.

But the biggest impact will come if China, now the world’s largest car market, adopts a similar standard. Besides 400,000 electric buses, it has the most electric trucks deployed to date, primarily light commercial pickups and delivery vans. China now has its own zero-emission heavy-duty vehicle regulation in the works.