A line of semi trucks seen through a vehicle windshield.
Credit: Markus Spiske / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Jennifer Helfrich and John Carlson. Helfrich is a senior manager of state policy in the West at Ceres, and Carlson is a manager of state policy in the Northeast at Ceres. Together, they lead Ceres’ efforts on regional transportation policy initiatives. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Between the dramatic spike in online shopping and headline-grabbing supply chain snafus, the last two years of pandemic living have made it clear just how much we rely on the freight trucks and delivery vans that power our economy. And with their role growing as most other modes of transportation have yet to rebound to their pre-pandemic levels, it really isn’t that surprising that new data shows that climate pollution from freight was well above 2019 levels this past year.

It’s exactly because large commercial vehicles are both central to our economy and responsible for an outsized impact on our climate and environment that we must find ways to operate them more cleanly. Yet, despite frequent announcements from automakers of new zero-emission passenger cars, SUVs, and pickups that are met with tremendous fanfare, the market for clean commercial trucks and vans has been much slower to develop.

But now, states on both coasts are taking the wheel and steering us toward the electric truck transition.

Just before the new year, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts each implemented the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, bringing to the East Coast a policy that California, Oregon, and Washington had all recently adopted. The rule will require manufacturers of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles — everything from larger commercial pickups to massive 18-wheelers — to steadily grow their electric vehicle sales in those states over time, starting in 2025.

These six states, all climate leaders, are about to unleash the era of the electric truck. And with the ACT rule, they’ve chosen the perfect example of a policy that both cleans and grows the economy at the same time, demonstrating that sustainability and business interest often go hand in hand. The ACT rule has boasted widespread support from environmental justice groups, climate advocates, and major companies. More than 70 major companies, employers, and investors signed a letter last year urging governors across the country to adopt the ACT rule.

Trucks and vans are central to our economy, delivering more than $10 trillion in goods each year. But they’re also responsible for disproportionate rates of climate-changing emissions, representing just 10% of U.S. traffic yet generating more than 25% of our roads’ greenhouse gas emissions. And they cause even higher rates of harmful air pollution that causes heart, lung, and respiratory disease, especially in poorer communities bordering highways, major roads, and large shipping centers.

It’s not that companies are happy with this dangerous status quo. Many leading businesses and their investors are especially eager to transition to electric fleets, recognizing a huge opportunity to make progress on their own climate goals while saving money on gas and maintenance. Indeed, when you factor in those expenses, it’s already cheaper to own and operate an electric truck than one powered by gas, and that difference will become starker as the market grows and upfront costs come down.

The trouble is, many of the models that companies need aren’t available at scale — and some don’t even exist.

Enter the ACT rule, which promises to jumpstart electric truck manufacturing by spurring the volume of production and sales that will drive down the costs, making it cheaper to both build and buy electric vehicles. The more states adopt this approach, the faster it will succeed. Already, about one in five trucks sold nationwide will comply with the ACT rule, a number that will only continue to grow if more states adopt the rule. And they should.

At least five more states are actively or have indicated that they will consider adopting the rule, including Maine, Vermont, Colorado, Connecticut, and Maryland. Several others have already signed an agreement with one another to explore policies that would help expand this market in the coming decades. That’s the goal that the ACT rule is designed to achieve, helping to ensure that American businesses lead in the shift to electric vehicles, creating good jobs and affordable clean trucks.

To fully unlock the rule’s potential, these states must also consider additional policies to support it. California’s Heavy Duty Omnibus rule, for example, will strongly curtail tailpipe pollution from those diesel trucks that remain on the market as the ACT rule takes hold. Supporting the expansion of electric fleets will require new policies and investments to build out and improve the charging infrastructure truckers will rely on. A one-time large-fleet reporting requirement that some states have adopted as part of ACT rule will be crucial for designing these policies and incentives to effectively drive investments, so every ACT state should make this fleet reporting requirement part of their rules.

But the ACT rule is the heart of this transition. The leading states on either coast were smart to see its enormous potential to help meet state, national, and corporate climate goals, and those states will be the first to benefit from technological innovation, improved business efficiency, and cleaner air in vulnerable communities. As for everybody else? It’s time to hit the accelerator.