Auto Focus

Big Government versus the Small Operator

The new rules drafted by the California Air Resources Board are designed to clean up the environment — but the expensive retrofit facing one truck driver is tough to swallow.

The demands of business versus the demands of the environment: It is a traditional tension, especially in California, the state with the largest economy in the U.S and arguably the country’s biggest pollution problem. Often, the small fleet operator is stuck in the middle. This is one of those times.

John Dutra is a one-man band, running his custom-upfit 1991 Isuzu FSR for construction work in the South Bay of San Francisco. Dutra couldn’t have known when he bought his truck so many years ago that today he’d be staring down a government mandate to (in all practicality) buy a cleaner truck.

Dutra’s issue is a result of California rules drafted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that came into effect this year, mandating that 20-year-old and older diesel vehicles comply with 2010 engine standards. The rules were formulated in 2008, though public comment since then has led to various exceptions and extensions. Like taxes, this is a good thing for those who can take advantage. But simply trying to figure them out is no easy task.

Large companies have staff charged with compliance, but the single operator does not have this luxury. Dutra says he receives postcard updates from CARB, but it’s nonetheless hard to keep up. So when he read my previous blog on the subject, which reported that fleets have until Jan. 31 to file for “flexibility options,” he knew he needed to act fast.

Dutra was specifically looking into relief for medium-duty trucks (his Isuzu rates 22,500 lbs. GVWR). His initial call to CARB yielded contradictory information to what he’d read. He reached out to me, and I reached out to CARB, connecting the two on a conference call. This is where it got interesting.

On the call, Dutra found out he would indeed need to take expensive action. If he registered on the CARB website by Jan. 31, he would have until Dec. 31, 2015 to either install a diesel particulate filter (DPF) in his present truck or buy a truck with a compliant engine. Installing a DPF is expensive — especially for a medium-duty truck — to the extent that in many cases it makes sense to just buy a newer truck.

If he did nothing, he’d be out of compliance.

Beth White, the manager that oversees the implementation of the truck and bus regulations for CARB, graciously took the call. CARB is no stranger to irate operators when it comes to regulations that ding the pocketbooks.

“We’ve been in a Recession, and then they say, spend $20,000? Where am I going to get the money? Should I mortgage my house for a bright shiny new truck?” said Dutra, with what might be described as wounded sarcasm.

White replied that the extensions were designed to ease that burden.

“Cars have not been forced to retrofit their smog equipment, and there are certainly more cars than trucks in California,” Dutra said. “Why are they picking on trucks, in an industry that has been suffering greatly since 2007?”

“Gasoline is cleaner than diesel,” White replied. “Diesel trucks last a really long time, and the older they are, the dirtier they are.” White cited the statistic that 70% of the cancer risk from air toxics is related to diesel particulate matter.

“What right does CARB have to ask more of California citizens than the federal government?” Dutra said.

“Because we have the worst air pollution in the nation,” replied White, adding that CARB indeed has the regulatory authority to go above and beyond federal requirements, but it does so to comply with the federal clean air attainment standards. If the state does not meet those standards, it risks losing federal highway funds. “This isn’t arbitrary; it’s not us trying to torture our business owners,” White said.

(Later, CARB turned me onto this rather cheesy video explaining air quality in California. The video backs up the fact that California’s air is much cleaner than it was in the past — as a direct result of legislation to control emissions.)

“But it still comes back to me buying a filter or buying another truck,” Dutra said.

White discussed solutions with Dutra. He could buy a truck with a 2007 engine, though he’d need to upgrade to a 2010 engine by 2023. “But if you buy a truck with a 2010 engine now, you’d be fully compliant,” she said, “and you wouldn’t have to do anything, ever.”

“Ever?” he chuckled, no doubt wondering when new regulations might be drawn.

When it comes to the moving target of regulations and the small business owner, there are no easy answers.


  1. Fed Up with Government [ February 24, 2015 @ 10:48AM ]

    The answer is simple. Just go out of business, scrap the truck, and go on welfare. Seems like it works well enough for everybody else in California.

  2. Dann burks [ March 22, 2015 @ 01:55PM ]

    I'm sure I'm not alone. My three trucks are too old buy CARB's standards and all must be replaced by years end. All three are driven by only me in a small niche area of construction and all have been built and maintained by me to last through retirement. But all must be replaced before I can continue work. My small company does not make enough to afford one new truck payment. The only people who do my job are small companies exactly like mine. Should the companies I work for stop building or go out of business as I do? Should I throw up my hands and leave the state and my family behind? The air in California may be still dirty, however, Its a 100% cleaner than the "smog days" of my youth in SoCal. Why can't CARB continue cleaning up our air without killing the economy and the people who pay there salary's. Some days I think I would rather have died in my youth from smog poisoning than to be tortured to death by government intervention.

Comment On This Story

Comment: (Max. 10000 characters)  
Please leave blank:
* Please note that every comment is moderated.


Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

Newsletter: Sign up to receive latest news, articles, and much more.

Read the latest

Auto Focus Blog: A blog covering fleets, auto rental and the business of cars

6 Takeaways from the 2018 International Car Rental Show

Technological solutions are finally moving from reality to theory, peer-to-peer platforms are being redefined, China has the biggest room for growth, while Sixt’s U.S. aspirations have only just begun.

The Irony of Customer Service in the Digital Age

Sure, any company would jump at the chance to use technology to reduce labor costs. But it also comes with some big, red, flashing warning lights.

Market Forces Driving Car Rental in 2018

An analysis of the conference calls of Avis Budget Group and Hertz Global Holdings reveal trends and initiatives involving fleet right sizing, pricing, ancillary revenue opportunities, and renting to ride-hailing drivers.

Job Finder: Access Top Talent. Fill Key Positions.