Unintended consequences: the California electric truck mandate
If you own a trucking company that picks up shipments from California ports, you now have to deal with the consequences of a new law designed to reduce your carbon footprint.
Trucking is one of the vital ingredients in our infrastructure that virtually all parts of the economy rely on. About two-fifths of all containerized imports to the US come through one of California's twelve commercial ports. According to a recent report in National Review, beginning January 1, any trucker doing "drayage" (the technical term for transporting stuff to or from a seaport) in California can only buy zero-emission vehicles, although they can hang on to their existing diesel fleet for a while.
Trucks don't last forever, however, and evidently the court of wisdom otherwise known as the California legislature decided this was the best way to get truckers used to the additional coming mandate that in 2035, all trucks entering California seaports and intermodal rail yards (where the containers are loaded onto trains) must be zero-emission types.
The ostensible motivation for these laws is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, of course. And careful analyses do show that over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, even if you include the fossil fuels used in the different types of manufacturing (electric versus internal-combustion) and in producing the electricity for the vehicle, less carbon dioxide results from using electric vehicles. That's the intended consequence, and unless the law is later modified, it will be achieved.
But the devil is in the details, and some truckers interviewed about the mandate pointed out several unintended consequences that may follow from these laws. For one thing, the number of electric trucks in California will have to go from about 300, where it is today, to around 500,000, and some way will have to be found to charge all those trucks, and to keep them running farther than the alleged 60 miles that the California regulators said was the typical drayage daily mileage. A lot of truckers drive a lot farther than that every day, and if you add several hours a day to charge the trucks, it turns a normal workday into a 20-hour day.
And then there's the cost. Even if you can find a zero-emission truck that will do the job, it will cost three or four times what a diesel vehicle costs. And one trucker asked what bank will finance such a purchase if you can't show where you're going to charge it and how you will work out a schedule that will let you stay in business.
So, if California doubles down on enforcement, we can anticipate something like a gradual strangling of commerce flowing through its ports as the few truckers who manage to jump through the hoops of regulation are all that's left. And maybe that was what the lawmakers really wanted anyway. If the idealist dream of a zero-emission society were to come to pass in the next couple of years, millions would die of starvation and cold, and those few who are left would be reduced to living a life that would be familiar to a denizen of 1880.
At the very least, essentially shutting down 40% of containerized imports to the US would cause massive supply-chain disruptions that would make what happened during COVID look like a hiccup. If you say no one would let things get that bad, well, we did let things get that bad during COVID, and it can happen again.
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I recently came across a true story that should become the paradigm cautionary tale for those who close their eyes to the unintended consequences of legislation.
In England in the mid-1800s, dogs were quite commonly used for transportation. Poor people who couldn't afford a horse and wagon to carry their goods to market could nevertheless use a dog and a "dog-cart" (not to be confused with the horse-drawn carriage referred to in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales). But in 1841, the recently founded Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) successfully lobbied to pass a law prohibiting the use of dogs for transportation. In urging this measure, the SPCA cited a few highly publicized instances of cruelty to transport dogs, although it appears that many if not most of the dogs were well-treated. For good measure, a dog tax was also passed around the same time, further discouraging the use of dogs for business purposes.
I can't be positive, but I suspect that the SPCA members were largely upper-class types who, if they thought ahead at all, imagined all the dogs formerly used for transport would revert to being beloved pets. Think again. According to Stanley Coren, a dog psychologist and historian, when the law took effect it led to something close to a dog holocaust:
"Dreadful massacres of dogs took place all over England when they could no longer legally be used for cartage but were now taxable. In Birmingham, more than a thousand were slaughtered, and similar carnage took place in Liverpool. In Cambridge, the streets were littered with dead dogs. Because these bodies were becoming a health hazard, the high constable of Cambridge arranged a mass burial of four hundred dogs."
So much for good intentions. The SPCA survived this debacle somehow, and so did the use of dogs for transportation in other parts of the world, but no longer in England.
No one can be certain of exactly what will happen if California enforces their zero-emission truck mandate. But they are meddling with a piece of infrastructure that is crucial to the entire US economy, and if the law has the unintended consequence of disrupting commerce in ways that harm millions of US citizens, those harms should be weighed against whatever essentially unmeasurable good that may eventually come a century or so after California's greenhouse-gas emissions go down by a few percent as a result of this law. In my view, the law will do a lot more harm than good, and most of the California truckers think so too.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a Mercator partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.
Image credit: Bigstock
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