RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, California takes another step to address climate change. It is expected to pass the nation's first rule that would require automakers to sell electric trucks. As Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, that includes big rigs, which are just starting to hit the highways.
CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: At Daimler Trucks headquarters in Portland, I have to climb a ladder to get into the passenger seat of the Freightliner eCascadia. It's a class 8 electric truck, as big as they come.
JASON GRAY: To start with, we're actually running right now, so that's how quiet it is.
PROFITA: Jason Gray builds these trucks, mostly by hand at this point. He puts the truck in gear to take me on a smooth, quiet ride you can't get in a diesel truck.
GRAY: What you're going to hear now is noises that all other trucks make, but you never got to hear because the engine's running. You're going to hear the air compressor running, the brake valves.
PROFITA: Daimler's built 38 of these electric trucks so far. Right now, only about a dozen customers are test driving them, including Bill Bliem.
BILL BLIEM: The drivers love them.
PROFITA: He oversees truck fleets for the logistics company NFI Industries.
BLIEM: They have nothing but great things to say about them, how quiet they are, how, you know, they don't come home smelling like diesel.
PROFITA: But there are plenty of problems for Bliem to work out. These trucks could be really expensive once they're on the market, and he's going to need places to charge them. Then, there's the mileage. Daimler's eCascadia can go about 250 miles before it needs to be recharged.
BLIEM: We average about 300 to 350-mile round trip, and we think that electric is going to get there. It's not there yet.
PROFITA: So Bliem's company is testing Daimler's trucks on shorter routes in Southern California, where it ships products between warehouses and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He's hoping to save money on gas and maintenance down the line. But...
BLIEM: Right now, there is no financial advantage. You know, being a sustainable company is our biggest push for these.
PROFITA: Anthony Victoria works with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. He says the communities NFI trucks are driving through in Southern California are living in a cloud of air pollution. He calls it a diesel death zone.
ANTHONY VICTORIA: You have, you know, high asthma rates, high cancer rates, high diabetes rates, and that could all be attributed to the industry that exists here - the logistics industry.
PROFITA: Victoria's group has counted more than a thousand diesel trucks an hour passing through largely Latinx neighborhoods.
VICTORIA: And that accumulates over time, and it gets people really sick. And a lot of it is, unfortunately, environmental racism.
PROFITA: He says this is where switching to electric trucks could actually save lives.
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PROFITA: Inside the Portland warehouse where Daimler building its first electric trucks, workers build out trailers with refrigerator-sized battery packs. Michael Scheib leads the company's electric truck division. He says this production will shift to their manufacturing plant next year. Even then, the market is uncertain.
MICHAEL SCHEIB: We have our view of this will happen. You know, the future is electric. The question is, when? In the next five years, in the next 10 years? Nobody knows that answer yet.
PROFITA: But with California pushing manufacturers to start making more of their trucks electric in 2024, that future could come sooner. For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Portland.
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