Opinion

The ‘last drop of diesel’ cartel

William Todts — February 28, 2023

How the trucking industry has tried to derail climate action

When I joined T&E in 2011 there was a consensus: truckers would have the last drop of diesel. They would be the last sector to decarbonise. If ever. The other consensus – in our community – was that rail was the answer to all freight’s problems.

Clearly there was a problem. The last drop of diesel approach was incompatible with climate action. The “rail to the rescue” story was contradicted by the facts. In most cases rail simply cannot compete with road freight, which is why it had been in decline for decades.

It was time for us to accept that trucks were here to stay.

Our initial aims were limited. We focused on safety and aerodynamics, offering the industry flexibility to improve on those by allowing them to design rounded cabs. Surely the truckmakers would support efficiency and less road deaths? 

Boy, was I wrong.

At first I didn’t understand why the truck industry was against design flexibility. Then in 2016 Iveco, DAF, Volvo/Renault, Daimler and MAN were fined by the European Commission for running a huge cartel. They were given record fines for colluding, fixing prices and holding back the introduction of technologies that would cut emissions.

Once I understood the truck industry was a cartel, things made more sense, although not easier to accept. Back in the early 2010s T&E and safety campaigners proposed direct vision standards for trucks that would have saved thousands of cyclists and pedestrians by now. The truck lobby killed them.

Fast forward to 2017. Falling battery costs and improved electric truck performance were about to change everything. We ran the numbers and found that it would soon be cheaper to run trucks on batteries than on diesel. Truckmakers said we were out-of-touch Tesla fanboys.

Reacting to the launch of the Semi, Daimler Truck boss Martin Daum famously said: “If Tesla really delivers on this promise, we’ll obviously buy two trucks — one to take apart and one to test because if that happens, something has passed us by….But for now, the same laws of physics apply in Germany and in California.” 

In that same year, Daimler & co ran a desperate campaign to stop the EU from introducing CO2 limits for trucks. They opposed penalties for breaching the pollution limits and wanted only an ‘indicative’ target for 2030. There was no need, they said. The market was working just fine – I’m not making this up! Thanks to the cartel scandal that year, few lawmakers believed them and the EU introduced its first ever truck CO2 regulation.

A year later the EU Commission announced the European Green Deal. Net zero by 2050 clearly made the “last drop of diesel” narrative hard to maintain. So truckmakers did the unimaginable, they had a go at being part of the solution, not the problem. In 2020 they pledged to sell only climate neutral vehicles by 2040 and companies – yes, including Daimler – made big announcements promising to electrify their lineups. 

This sounded like real change. 

But old habits die hard. When the Commission pushed for fixed targets for 2040, those same truckmakers ran around Brussels saying that was absolutely impossible. How could they possibly charge or refuel their zero emission trucks in Lapland? How could they ever cross the Alps without Diesel?  

They got their way. Sort of.

The initially proposed 100% CO2 reduction target for truckmakers was watered down to -90% and plenty of truck types were excluded. 

Now that they’ve killed the 100% target, truckmakers have set their sights on watering down the -45% by 2030 CO2 target. They are also running a scandalous campaign trying to eliminate the new Euro VII emission standards that would reduce toxic diesel fumes and slash premature deaths from air pollution. 

Looking back to those days in the early 2010s, I’m struck by how wrong truckmakers have been on almost everything I’ve ever worked on. Europe’s lawmakers would do well to remember that when they get a visit from the representatives of the “last drop of diesel” cartel.