Fear and loathing in Long Beach

As it happens today, I’m flying home from another trade show. Which I do a lot. But this one was a bit difference. For one thing, its keynote speaker was retired Army general Wesley Clark. Most of the time at a truck show, the speaker is somebody off the Fox News Channel. And while Gen. Clark is hardly a screaming radical, he did run for president on the Democratic ticket in 2008. Which would normally make him an odd choice for a speaker at a truck show. But this was the Alternative Clean Technology conference in Long Beach, CA, a show dedicated wholly to finding, promoting and educating the transportation sector on powering cars, vans and trucks with fuels other than gasoline and diesel. It’s a good idea for a show and an important one as well: We all know this industry is about to change in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. CCJ has been at the forefront reporting on seismic changes in the trucking industry since its inception over 100 years ago. And that’s why CCJ is a proud sponsor and supporter of the ACT Show and the technologies and exhibitors showcased there.

California is a natural choice for a conference like this one. As anyone remotely related to the trucking industry knows, California is a prime mover in pushing emissions regulations and alternative fuel and powertrain technologies. Moreover, Long Beach, where the show was held, is the de facto proving ground for these new policies and systems. If it gets dreamed up in Sacramento, Long Beach is where the rubber meets the road. Or, to put it less kindly, for many trucking fleets, Long Beach is the eye of a hurricane of headache and misery that plays havoc with how they prefer to do business.

I was in Long Beach for three days and attended the usual share of conference and seminars, and even served as a moderator on a panel of experts discussing the interest in natural gas as fuel in heavy duty trucks. (This is the sort of thing they never mention to you in job interviews.)

As you might expect, because of the setting and the subject matter at hand, the majority of the speakers and presenters at the show were California natives. Many were government officials of one sort or another. Others serve on various committees and resource boards. And one thing struck me about all of them: They are true believers in the causes they champion.

Regardless of what you, the truck industry or even the rest of the country as a whole thinks, the majority of officials in California are dead serious about cleaning up their air and protecting the environment and they truly believe that alternate energy technologies such as wind, solar, tidal, natural gas, fuel cells and all-electric vehicles will enable them to do so. In fact, they’re so passionate about these issues, and so convinced they’re in the right, that if a space-time wormhole popped open on this airplane right now and dropped an issue of CCJ into my lap from the year 2032, I wouldn’t bat an eye if the cover story told me California was getting ready to completely phase diesel trucks out of on-highway service in and mandate natural gas-powered trucks and tractors only throughout the state.

If you’re not happy to hear this, I’ve got news for you: California doesn’t care.    The state has one of the most powerful economic engines in the world at their back. If you don’t want to do business in the state, they’re confident somebody else will be happy to step up and take your place. If you want do do business within their borders, you have to play by their rules. And that’s just the way it is.

There are still of lot of chapters to be written on the story of California, emissions and new fuel technologies. Some of these concepts will pan out. Some won’t. But if I learned anything at all this week, it’s that California isn’t playing around when it comes to cleaning up its air and pushing new energy policies and technologies. They will be willing to work with the trucking industry moving forward — to a certain extent. But, as I said, they are True Believers in their cause. You may think they’re nuts. You may think they’re adding onerous and unnecessary burdens to your business model. But they’re dead serious about what they want to do and how they want to do IT.  And we’re all going to have to bear that in mind as this industry and the technology that powers it evolves in the future.