How big data and the electric car reveal the future of heavy equipment emissions regulations

Updated Jul 16, 2015
Caterpillar’s D7E electric-drive dozer.Caterpillar’s D7E electric-drive dozer.

Recently I came across a map of the United States published by The Atlantic‘s CityLab site that showed where electric vehicles (EVs) were most and least beneficial in terms of reducing air pollution.

This map and the thinking behind it is an example of how big data is changing how policy makers will govern many aspects of our lives in the future. And if you burn a lot of fossil fuels in your line of work—and almost all of you in heavy construction do—maps like these may very well determine what machines you can and can’t use on your jobsites…or what fines, fees and levies you may have to pay to operate yellow iron in urban areas.

The map synthesizes two sets of data on a county-by-county basis. First is the county’s smog/air pollution problem. Second is the relative cleanliness or dirtiness of its electrical power generation.

These two maps illustrate the estimated damages, from 1 to 5 percent, for gas (left) and electric (right) vehicles by U.S. county. The Credit: National Bureau of Economic ResearchThese two maps illustrate the estimated damages, from 1 to 5 percent, for gas (left) and electric (right) vehicles by U.S. county. The Credit: National Bureau of Economic Research

In areas where electrical energy production is relatively dirty (old, coal fired plants) and where there is a lot of urban air pollution, electric vehicles have a high environmental value. In rural areas or where electricity is produced cleanly (natural gas, hydroelectric, wind and solar), the environmental benefit of an EV is relatively low.

The results may upset some of the country’s more ardent environmentalists who think EVs are the holy grail, but the numbers, especially when they’re tabulated on a county level, don’t lie. To quote from the article:

“In some places electrics do so much relative harm, that instead of being subsidized…they should actually be taxed.”

Everybody knows big urban areas suffer the most from air pollution. What these maps do is give policy makers the ability to fine tune regulations and taxes. If we are going to be taxed on a formula that incorporates the amount of air pollution we create with our machines and the relative smog problem in our cities, then it follows it should be expensive to operate in Los Angeles, Houston and New York; and inexpensive to operate in Montana or Nevada.

Believe me, this is coming. But it is only fair and here’s why:

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A few years ago I was listening in to a webcast of a CARB public comment session. CARB, for those of you who don’t know, is the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with managing that state’s air quality. They’ve implemented the toughest exhaust emissions regulations in the country—a cause of much consternation in the heavy trucking and equipment industries.

But what got my attention was a comment from the owner of a trucking firm in Northern California. He wanted to know why he had to conform his trucks to these onerous and expensive rules when he lived and worked in one of the least populated areas of the state, where there is nothing but giant trees and mountains for hundreds of miles in all directions.

CARB didn’t have an answer. But to create one set of rules for Los Angeles and empty spaces of the mountain west was, and still is, clearly unfair. It’s government at its worst: cumbersome and indifferent.

With maps and data like the one here, that may be changing. If you look at the maps, Northern California and much of Oregon are clean and green. The air quality problems are concentrated in the cities.

So rather than make everybody in the state conform to one regulation and use one type of exhaust emission technology, the public would be better served using county level mapping and data to pinpoint the problem and use financial incentives or disincentives to encourage or discourage development and alternative energy sources.

With such a system if you had a job in Los Angeles, you would have strong incentives to use equipment like Caterpillar’s D7E electric drive dozer or one of Komatsu’s hybrid excavators. If you’re working in Eureka, you could stick with conventional equipment.

Pollution has a market value, or at least the government has assigned it one. The exact numbers may be arbitrary, but no one denies that air pollution has a cost. With mapping and big data we finally have to tools to properly assign that cost and avoid the collateral damage of regulations that punish the innocent.