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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cleaner Truckin’

Air Date: Week of

More than a million truck drivers in the United States spend most of their time living in their cabs. To keep warm or to keep cool, most have to idle their engines, which spew particles and harmful gases. But, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, a Tennessee inventor has come up with a solution that's proving very popular in truck stops across the nation.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Clean air advocates are calling on the federal government to do more about older trucks on the road in response to yet another report that shows the harmful health effects of diesel exhaust.

The news couldn’t come at a better time for one inventor from Knoxville, Tennessee.
He’s come up with a novel way to cut down on diesel pollution and, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, it all started with a parking ticket in New Jersey.

LOBET: About five years ago in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, A.C. Wilson and his wife Doris had just set up their camper for the evening. They waited for A.C.'s brother-in-law Carl, a long haul truck driver, to show up but it was getting late and they were getting hungry.

A.C. WILSON: So, we all went on to dinner without him and came back and he was mad as a hornet. He had been up in the Northeast, Jersey, and had gotten a ticket for parking on the on-ramp and idling his engine.

LOBET: Carl left his truck running because that's the usual way truck drivers keep their cabs warm or cool through nature's extremes. That night, Wilson, a longtime tinkerer, pondered the predicament.

WILSON: I bedded down in my motor home. And I was layin' there and I thought--why can I not do this for a trucker? Because I've got all the--cablevision, I've got heat and air on my rig but I've got to come up with a way to put heat and air conditioning into a parked truck.

LOBET: That night, Wilson got his idea. Picture a car vacuum hose. But instead of sucking air, the hose ends in a touch screen panel and vents that deliver warm or cool air, and also telephone, satellite TV, and fast internet. The next morning, he showed his brother- in-law the sketch and soon found himself talking to truck stop companies.

WILSON: They were very receptive to it, and wanted to know where we’d been the past 20 years, but that was how it was actually founded.

LOBET: Today, Wilson's company Idleaire makes a device that fits snugly into most truck windows. Drivers can find the connections at truck stops in ten states. The company has received clean air awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. And some major trucking companies, like National Freight and Continental Express, have signed on. They pay Idleaire $1.40 an hour, but save two dollars every hour on diesel fuel.


PORTER: Hello My name is Jerome Porter. I drive for Continental Express.

LOBET: Jerome Porter says he likes life on the road. He better. For most of the month, his truck is his home.

PORTER: Livin’ in my truck, I don't have a problem with it. You know, I make pretty decent money. I got a comfortable bed back there, matter of fact I have two beds. I have a TV. I have a DVD player, a VHS player, along with my laptop computer, so I can always find something to do, to occupy my time.

LOBET: But to keep his cab warm or cool, he needed to idle.

PORTER: But you get up on the East Coast and New York they don't like big trucks to idle their trucks, you know. You mainly have to have a heated blanket or idle your truck for, you know, 15 minutes to an hour. But if the police come by, you have to shut your truck off otherwise they will ticket you.

LOBET: Then, one day, Porter pulled in to a truck stop with Idleaire hookups.

PORTER: I said to myself, “well, lemme see what it does. I'm not going to pass judgment yet.” And once I felt how cold the air could get without me idling my truck, I'm like – “oh, I'm sold (laughs).” I wasn't caring about the TV, the Internet service, uh-uh....just the air, heh-heh.

LOBET: Idleaire was initially aimed at alleviating the sweats and chills of life on the road. But it turns out the inventor stumbled on a partial solution for one of the nation’s biggest air problems -- diesel exhaust. The situation is so serious 21 states make truckers limit their idling. California is the most recent. Tom Cackette is deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board.

CACKETTE: Here, in California, we have over a million diesels operating and they cause a lot of smog. They are responsible for about half of the summertime ozone smog-forming emissions.

LOBET: Half of all nitrogen oxide emissions in summer. But that includes diesel equipment and driving. What about just idling?

CACKETTE: Well, the idling is about 50 tons per day of NOX and about one ton per day of particulate. That's about the same smog forming emissions as 1.75 million cars would put out.

LOBET: Truck engine makers are retooling and they’ll soon sell rigs that burn 97 per cent cleaner. And the Bush administration is cracking down on tractors and construction equipment diesels. That still leaves the trucks already on the road. Recent studies in California show even commuters who spend short periods in heavy traffic are getting significant exposures to diesel exhaust.

CACKETTE: We have characterized what the impact of these diesel emissions are and it is quite stunning. There’s about 2900 premature deaths every year from the emissions of diesels. There’s about a quarter of a million asthma attacks that occur as a result of diesel emissions and over 600,000 lost workdays every year in California alone.

LOBET: So when Idleaire came along and allowed trucks to turn off, regulators took notice. They started paying Idleaire to install facilities, in some cases defraying the company's capital costs.


LOBET: At a truck stop in Fresno, California, Idleaire employee Courtney Bowman shifts her weight from foot to foot to keep warm as she waits for her chance to persuade a weary trucker to give Idleaire a try.


BOWMAN: We are a company that provides air conditioning, heat, plug-ins, phone, satellite TV and internet.

MAN: Yes, ma’am.

BOWMAN: This is a window adapter here that you will buy which is ten dollars. That’s yours to keep. We give you a membership card with ten dollars already on it. That’ll hold you for, like, seven hours. After that, it's a dollar 40 an hour.

MAN: Okay.

BOWMAN: Here you can get on the internet and browse. I'm not going to hold you up too long. I know you have got to go. Nice to meet you. Happy holidays.

MAN: Thank you, ma’am. Appreciate it.

LOBET: Bowman gets about 30 seconds to make her pitch. It's too early in the day for much business. But a few who have hooked up are happy to say why. Daniel Johnson drives out of Rolla, Missouri.

JOHNSON: I wish there was more Idleaire. I’d pull into it every time I can, you know. If we turn off our truck in the summertime we get too hot because of the heat coming off of the engine and the transmission and, you know, heat coming through the cab from the sun. And in the wintertime, it's just unbearably cold really, really fast. And, you know, you really do need to keep more of a constant temperature so you don't get yourself sick.

BIRD: I hate pulling into a truck stop, trying to get some sleep and somebody next to me decides he's gonna run his rig all night.

LOBET: Jeff Bird drives out of Sacramento.

BIRD: It's annoying and it's expensive and it's polluting the air and these are already extremely gross polluters. But everybody in America wants their product, so they’re…it's kind of a give and take. You're gonna give up some clean environment so that everybody can have their Gucci handbags. We, Americans, are consumers of everything. From popcorn to Gucci.

LOBET: But, as much as Jeff Bird loves this service, he scratches his head about Idleaire's business model.

BIRD: Like, I pull in and I used it for three hours. That's only five bucks, I don’t know, maybe the numbers crunch right, but to me it didn't seem like it would.

LOBET: He has a point, says Linda Gaines, a physicist and diesel idling guru at Argonne National Laboratories Center for Transportation Research. Gaines says selling devices that let truckers shut of their engines and still have power should be a profitable game, and several companies are making a go of it. But she doesn’t think Idleaire wins in an even race.

GAINES: The installations are very expensive. They require a very large staff to run them. And the revenues from just the basic services are rather low. And so, what we see is that a lot of the initial installations have been funded by government grants but we don't know how they’re going to make it as a long-term viable business without government subsidies.

LOBET: Potential competition includes small diesel engines, and a fuel cell power unit developed by Freightliner and UC Davis. Also some newer trucks are being built so they plug in where power is available. A.C. Wilson, Idleaire's low-key founder, says his model is competitive.

WILSON: We're not out here promoting anti-idling or anything but we are here to promote a solution and we think the communities and the drivers themselves would really like.

LOBET: And for now, that's one way of making a dent in the nearly one billion gallons of diesel fuel burned each year by idling trucks. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.



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