By Dr. Larry Chiaramonte
Hunts Point in the South Bronx is the zip code in the US. with the highest rate of asthma. I think about it all the time since I have spent a great part of my career treating patients from the neighborhood. Nearly 40% of the population is affected. And no wonder. Over 12 thousand trucks per day service the fish, meat, vegetable and flower distribution centers for greater New York in Hunts Point and belch noxious diesel fumes, usually on the side streets and in the yard just waiting to unload. I have dubbed this place as America’s canary as it serves as an early warning of what happens in the bad air of diesel trucking for the rest of us.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources, accounting for tens of thousands of premature deaths each. “Diesel engines contribute to the problem by releasing particulates directly into the air and by emitting nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which transform into ‘secondary’ particulates in the atmosphere.” Driven by regulation and economics, change is afoot for transportation hubs like Hunts Point.
Eighteen-wheel highway diesel trucks are the backbone of our current cargo transport, and prowl the nations highways by the hundreds of thousands. While electric cars and hybrids generate intense excitement, it would appear that we have no alternative to diesels to deliver the nation’s food and other goods. How are we going to progress from the 300 miles between charges of a Tesla S car—new “affordable” models are now in production–to an electric eighteen-wheel truck dragging tons of cargo for thousands of miles?
I am happy to report to all those little lungs in the Bronx that help is on the way. A new company called
Nikola Motors has created something called the “Nikola One”, which will be equipped with a 320 kWh battery pack, although most of its expected 1,200 miles of range will be achieved in combination with an hydrogen fuel cell. The discharge from this is harmless water vapor and the hydrogen can be produced with renewable energy. The company has received orders for 7000 worth $2.3 billion.
A company from China called BYD short for Build Your Dreams BYD [stock BYDDF], with investment by Warren Buffett. They started delivering the first battery-electric trucks. These are not long-distant haulers but yard trucks. It’s amazing how much poison can be generated just moving cargo around a terminal. All that diesel running all day long in the confines of 60 acres in the South Bronx can do a lot of damage. A cargo-switching company Daylight Transport has already taken delivery of its first units and installing a 600 kW solar array and with the charging stations on-site to power its new trucks on sunlight.
These trucks are more expensive than diesels but as a spokesman for BYD “When you factor in fuel savings and maintenance savings over the life of a truck, then even when you disregard the state and federal incentives that most electric truck purchasers get, there’s a good business case to be made for creating long-range haulers.”
Not to be outdone, Tesla is also developing two other types of all-electric vehicles, heavy-duty trucks and “high passenger-density urban transport”. Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year. CEO Elon Musk refers to hydrogen fuel cells as “fool cells” because of their addition to cost and problems storing hydrogen.
Whether one technology or the other is more efficient remains to be seen, but as an allergist I say, let the games begin. All of us involved in respiratory health must follow and encourage these advances.
Update: Walmart has pre-ordered 15 of Tesla’s all-electric tractor-trailers.