Policy: Environment & Energy

Obama's 'SuperTruck' isn't so super when it comes to saving money

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Barack Obama,Energy Department,Ashe Schow,Energy and Environment,Fuel Efficiency,SuperTruck

In President Obama's speech Tuesday about new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, he highlighted a “SuperTruck” that had a significantly improved fuel economy over regular freight trucks.

Obama, of course, touted the government spending that went in to the SuperTruck project, which was started with more than $115 million in Department of Energy funds back in 2010.

“And thanks to a partnership between industry and my administration, the truck behind me was able to achieve a 75 percent improvement in fuel economy over the last year — 75 percent,” Obama said. “That’s why I call this SuperTruck.”

That 75 percent number sounded really good, right? Well, the reason Obama said “75 percent” was because the actual fuel efficiency improvement doesn't sound so great.

The new SuperTruck, built by a partnership between Cummins Inc. and Peterbilt Motor Co., gets 10.7 miles per gallon. Does that sound terrible? Well, it’s much better than the 2009 baseline freight truck average, which only achieves between 5.5 and 6.5 mpg. So yes, this new truck is a huge improvement, but saying the new truck gets 10.7 mpg doesn’t make for a great speech.

And that's even an improvement over the truck that Cummins-Peterbilt unveiled in 2013, which averaged 9.9 mpg -- a 54 percent increase in fuel economy over the 2009 baseline model.

So the trucks are improving. But for the amount of money it cost to develop them, how much would the trucks end up costing the private sector?

Cummins-Peterbilt would not speculate, but although Obama touted the truck at the speech, no such truck is available for commercial sale.

“The SuperTruck overall is not on the market now, but everyone involved hopes to bring it to commercialization,” Jon Mills, director of external communications at Cummins, told the Washington Examiner.

Mills did not respond when asked how long it would take to get the SuperTrucks on the market.

Derek Smith, public relations manager at Peterbilt Motors, gave a similar response.

“This truck is still in development and no pricing has been determined,” Smith told the Examiner.

Energy Department spokeswoman Dawn Selak referred inquires regarding the price of the truck to the manufacturers.

With few exceptions when it comes to commercial vehicles, it’s common for more fuel-efficient vehicles to be far more expensive than those with lower gas mileage. With a freight truck that nearly doubles the fuel efficiency, the price is expected to be extremely high — at least for now.

The price of a new Peterbilt 579 (the baseline version of the SuperTruck) is between $130,000 and $150,000. Cummins received $39 million from the Energy Department in 2010 to develop the SuperTruck, which is expected to save about $27,000 per truck on annual fuel costs.

With that much money devoted to developing a better truck, the commercial price for it at this moment would be sky high. Of course, further improvements (read: more government grants) would eventually bring the price down to something affordable for the wealthiest truck drivers.

The SuperTruck program began Jan. 11, 2010, with a Department of Energy grant of more than $115 million. The private industry was expected to contribute at least 50 percent of the project cost. In total, more than $230 million was provided for the SuperTruck program.

But the SuperTruck program, as with other fuel efficiency standards, has more to do with appeasing environmentalists than helping consumers. The fuel savings rarely recoup the initial higher cost of the more fuel-efficient vehicle, and that added cost would be passed on to the consumers, just as higher gas prices are passed down.

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