Johnson: More Research Needed to Boost Truck Fuel Economy, Safety

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

More research is needed to improve the safety and fuel economy of the nation's truck fleet, a Michigan Technological University faculty member told a congressional subcommittee Tuesday.

John Johnson, a presidential professor of mechanical engineering–engineering mechanics, testified March 24 before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology. The hearing was part of a review of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Vehicle Technologies research and development programs. Specifically, subcommittee members questioned expert witnesses on the funding levels and changing market and public needs.

Johnson expressed concern over the decline in federal funding for the 21st Century Truck Partnership. In 2000, DOE launched the Partnership to explore technological improvements in commercial and military trucks and buses. Funded through the DOE, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Partnership also involves several national research laboratories and many industrial partners.

Increasing truck efficiency has a major impact because trucks make up a significant portion of America's fuel use and will likely surpass passenger car fuel use within the next few decades.

"Despite the many benefits of the Partnership, including helping the engine industry meet the EPA 2007 particulate and 2010 NOx standards, the program has suffered from the dwindling resources devoted by the Department of Energy," Johnson told the subcommittee. Funding has dropped from $87 million in FY2002 to $30 million in FY2008.

Federal support for research is falling just as the trucking industry prepares to address new fuel economy standards under development by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Johnson noted. He recommended that the DOE receive $200 million for research to boost trucks' fuel efficiency and to reduce emissions, including research on biodiesel, aerodynamic design, hybrid vehicles and more.

Safety is also a major concern. "Crash protection measures have not substantially reduced highway fatalities during the past decade," he said. He recommended that $25 million a year be allocated to the Partnership for the development of crash avoidance technologies and in-vehicle communication systems.

Research spending should reflect the significant role the trucking industry plays in the US economy, he said. Manufacturers of heavy-duty trucks had sales of $16 billon in 2002, and overall, the trucking industry employs 1.4 million workers with an annual payroll of $47 billion. "Trucks account for about one-fourth of the transportation industry's total revenues," said Johnson.

Johnson chaired the National Academies Committee that wrote the June report "Review of the 21st Century Truck Partnership." A nationally recognized expert on diesel engines, he has participated in 12 National Academies committees.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.