ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
The EPA today proposed new rules to make medium and heavy-duty trucks more fuel efficient starting in the year 2014. One way truck fleets can hit the expected mileage targets is by embracing hybrid technologies.
Hybrid trucks are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. fleet. But as Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, that could soon change.
TRACY SAMILTON: Greg Houston is starting his day as a bucket truck operator for DTE, Michigan's biggest utility. He climbs into his big truck and pulls out his clipboard.
Mr. GREG HOUSTON (DTE): We have to go to the intersection of Northlawn and Schoolcraft. The job report says that we have gym shoes across the wires, so we have to go remove them.
SAMILTON: Houston's truck is a hybrid. The battery helps the heavy vehicle accelerate, and it lifts the bucket, so the truck can be turned off during a job instead of idling the whole time - saving lots of gas.
At the site, Houston puts out the orange cones.
Mr. HOUSTON: And here, you put in the EPCO button. The engine will shut off, and then it will go right into the hybrid system.
(Soundbite of engine)
Mr. HOUSTON: See? Give it a second and you'll hear the hybrid system kick in.
SAMILTON: Houston's partner, Dan Sawicki(ph), climbs up in the bucket and cuts the shoes off the wire.
(Soundbite of shoes hitting ground)
Mr. DAN SAWICKI (DTE): They look like your size.
SAMILTON: A routine call, for sure. But with no smelly emissions and less noise to disturb the neighbors. There are now hybrid versions of everything from big rigs to parcel delivery trucks. But companies still aren't buying a lot of them.
Mr. JOHN BOESEL (President and CEO, CALSTART): It is more expensive to buy a hybrid truck.
SAMILTON: Up to twice as expensive, John Boesel says. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to Boesel, most hybrid trucks are 30 percent to 50 percent more expensive than standard trucks. Other sources said that some hybrid trucks are twice as expensive.]
Boesel is head of CALSTART, a nonprofit dedicated to greening the American truck fleet, a fleet that uses one-fifth of the nation's fuel. Boesel says replacing just one big rig with a hybrid is equivalent to eight passenger cars replaced by Prius hybrids. But it can take seven years to recoup the extra cost.
Mr. BOESEL: But for this industry to go big time, we need probably a two- to three-year payback, and that's challenging in this era where the price of oil is relatively low.
SAMILTON: There are some early adopters out there. New York City is buying a few hybrid street sweepers. Some companies like FedEx, UPS and Coca-Cola are buying hybrid trucks in the hundreds. But very few are doing it with just their own money. Most are using grants from the federal government.
Mr. RUSS HARDING (Mackinac Center for Public Policy): If they can't afford to do it without government help, what happens when the government help ends?
SAMILTON: That's Russ Harding, who studies environmental issues at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank. Harding doesn't blame anyone for taking advantage of grants.
Mr. HARDING: That's all fine and dandy, but when those dollars then are not available, they're going to abandon that technology. If anything, that's going to discourage investment.
SAMILTON: But some companies say their commitment to hybrids is here to stay. Take Coca-Cola, which now has 600 hybrid big rigs. That's 6 percent of its fleet. The company used a mix of state, federal and its own dollars, but says it will keep buying hybrids if the grants go away.
Bruce Karas is with Coke's sustainability group.
Mr. BRUCE KARAS (Director of Sustainability, Environment and Safety, Coca-Cola North America): As an early adopter, we have the cost penalty on the front end. But in time, as more trucks are produced, as more drivetrains are put together, those cost profiles go down, and you could see the same scenario again and again with wind power, with solar, with fuel cells, any other type of new technology.
SAMILTON: So far, the federal government's role has largely been a carrot, but the stick is coming. The U.S. EPA proposes new federal rules to improve medium-to heavy-duty truck fuel efficiency. Big rig trucks would have to make the biggest change - a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy and emissions by 2018.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.