The Corner

The Problem with ‘Super Trucks’

President Barack Obama is a masterly practitioner of the occult art of single-entry bookkeeping. Consider his speech today, in which he praised the fuel economy of a new “super truck,” making the point that, since most U.S. freight moves in trucks, lower operating costs for freight operators should in theory mean lower costs for consumers. And he would have a point — if that fuel-economy technology were free. It is not. It costs money to develop. It costs money to deploy. Where it adds to the price of a vehicle, it also adds to ownership costs such as insurance and taxation.

We have been down this road before. Hybrid passenger vehicles are getting better, but most of them are not efficient alternatives to their gas-powered siblings, if by “efficient” you mean that the savings in fuel costs are enough to offset higher purchase prices and higher costs of ownership. Most consumer hybrids do not save their owners any money. Those that do are in many cases very high-end vehicles, such as the 2013 Mercedes S-Class hybrid, that makers sell for thousands less than their gasoline-powered versions. The Lexus CT 200h hybrid sells for more than $6,000 less than the gas-powered version, which very likely has more to do with marketing considerations and politics than supply and demand or production costs.  It is my impression that fuel economy probably is not really the top consideration for people in the market for a $100,000 Mercedes or an $850,000 Porsche.

And improving mileage may not even be the best way to reduce emissions from freight-hauling trucks. Those generally run on diesel, and companies such as Mercedes have had great success in reducing diesel emissions with exhaust additives rather than through simply improving fuel economy. But the Obama administration’s mandate to automakers was improving fuel economy, not reducing emissions. It is conceivable that one could improve fuel economy while doing nothing to reduce emissions, the relationship between the two being nonlinear, and while doing nothing to reduce the cost of ownership, either.

Whatever the technology that is deployed to maximize freight trucks’ fuel emissions, one thing is a safe bet: It will not be free. Like most passenger hybrids, it may not even produce savings. President Obama had a bit to say about the benefits, but nothing substantive to say about the costs.

Both matter.

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