Truck weights are under attack. No, we are not witnessing a return to the trucking vs. railroad battles of the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when the standard maximum truck weight rose from 73,280 pounds to today’s 80,000 pounds and when twin 28-foot trailer combinations and 53-foot semitrailers became legal nationwide, both in exchange for increased federal highway taxes. The period is also when the expansion of heavier and longer truck combinations were “frozen” in federal law.

Instead, truck net weights are coming under assault. The difference between the maximum or gross weight allowed under law and the empty or tare weight of the truck combination itself determines the net weight.

And the threat is not from an economic competitor, but from state, and federal regulators. These agencies want to add components to future trucks, components that will increase the empty weight of the truck combination with no compensatory increase in the maximum weight.

In this two-part series, we will look at the efforts to regulate electric vehicles (EVs), specifically electric trucks, and the impending federal rulemaking on side underride guards, both from the weight standpoint. While those regulatory changes are not proposed with the intent of reducing truck net weights – and potentially some carriers’ profit margins – the economic impacts are real, but seldom discussed.

It’s basic economics: supply and demand. In truck combinations, the supply side means volume and weight. Restrict the net weight available to carry cargo (the demand side), and either the rates must go up or the profit margin down. In the highly competitive trucking industry, profit margins are often slim.

Truck and truck equipment manufacturers know the importance of weight. For years, OEM marketing has emphasized efforts to reduce component weight.

It is true that when looking at the entirety of trucking operations, relatively few truck combinations “max out” at 80,000 pounds. But most rate models build in weight as a factor, and in some trucking sectors – agriculture, timber, construction, sand and gravel, heavy industry — attaining the maximum gross weight is quite common.

What would a transition to EVs mean for truck net weights? First, to be clear, that is already happening. In seven states, including California, sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks must meet an increasing percentage of zero-emissions vehicles from 2024 to 2035. Four more states are in the rulemaking process to join that group. Seven other jurisdictions have pledged to reach 100% electric trucks by 2050, with an interim goal of 30% by 2030. EVs are becoming the law.

Fully electric trucks (not hybrids) do not have fuel tanks and rely on an electric motor in place of an internal combustion engine. Instead of fuel tanks holding diesel at about 7 pounds per gallon, the EVs have massive batteries.

The weight difference? Research from the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies found that long-haul (heavy-duty) electric trucks could weigh 5,328 pounds more than their diesel counterparts. For short-haul and other medium-duty trucks, the battery-operated versions could scale at 1,400 pounds greater than diesel-fueled trucks.

That university study did not contemplate the effect on cargo capacity, trucking profit margins or freight rates, but it did consider that the heavier EVs would increase truck axle weights and impact highway infrastructure – which would necessitate more repairs. Someone must pay for those repairs. In the 1980s, trucking saw higher taxes in return for increased productivity. In this decade and beyond, trucking may well see higher taxes in return for reduced productivity.

In “Trucking Faced with ‘Weighty’ Issues, Part 2,” we consider the weight of side underride guards.

The PrePass blog and podcasts are published as a public service of PrePass®, the most reliable and technologically advanced weigh station bypass and integrated electronic trucking toll payment platform in North America. PrePass also includes INFORM™ Safety and INFORM™ Tolling software for improving truck safety scores and lowering toll costs.