California Pushes to Replace its Diesel Fleet, Sparking Criticism and Concern from the Industry

Regulators in California approved a controversial amendment to phase out its medium and heavy-duty diesel trucking fleet at its rail yards and ports by 2035. The effort is meant to spur investments in electric trucks and wean the state off fossil fuel-powered vehicles, as industry officials are critical, saying the timeline is critically impractical.

The rule, passed last week by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), wants a gradual changeover of the state’s highest-polluting and oldest off-road diesel vehicles to vehicles with zero emissions, beginning in 2024. That year, all new delivery vans, freight, and box trucks must be zero-emission vehicles. 

In 2025, the regulations call for a slow phase-out of all diesel-powered trucks at rail yards, warehouses, and ports across the street.

The rule is expected to be brought up for a spring vote and is part of California’s larger goal of ending the reliance on fossil fuels. The state already has a rule requiring all new vehicles in the state to be either plug-in electric or electric models by 2035.

People familiar with the proposed amendment describe it as an enforcement mechanism designed to ensure the state’s fleet of high-polluting, aging trucks and complement the existing emissions rule, replacing them with electric models. 

Currently, off-road diesel vehicles make up around 14% of total nitrous oxide emissions in the state, making them the second-biggest source of mobile nitrous oxide in the state. 

California regulators say the rule is expected to prevent more than 570 air-quality-related deaths and yield $5.7 billion in public health benefits. 

“The oldest off-road diesel-fueled vehicles with no emission controls are 80 times as polluting as a similar sized off-road vehicle purchased today,” said Liane Randolph, CARB Chairwoman, in a statement. 

Opponents of amendment: Timeline impractical, cost too much

Opponents of the amendment say the timeline is impractical and cite the high costs associated with making the switch and the lack of infrastructure for heavy-duty EV chargers in the state. 

Only 500 of the 1.8 million heavy-duty trucks in operation in California are zero emissions, according to Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of government affairs at the California Trucking Association (CTA). 

Industry officials say another major hurdle is the lack of charging infrastructure for vehicles. The state estimates it will need 157,000 new chargers installed by 2030 to support the transformation of its medium and heavy-duty state vehicle fleet. 

Shimoda emphasized the state would need to install between 300 and 800 chargers per week until then. Each represents up to 158 megawatts of new charging capacity — enough to power nearly 100,000 households. 

“Nearly none of that infrastructure is in place today,” he said. 

The state has roughly 80,000 electric vehicle chargers installed currently. Almost all are designed to charge light-duty vehicles and cars. 

President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Todd Spencer, told CalMatters that the current infrastructure and charging times could cause the industry “total disruption.”

“Neither the technology nor the interstate infrastructure will be available in the foreseeable future to support a zero-emission requirement for long-haul interstate trucks,” said Spencer.