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Here Come the Electric Garbage Trucks

Electrifying fuel-guzzling heavy-duty trucks could cut costs and carbon emissions—in theory, at least.

While we wait and see whether electric cars will take over the roads, there’s a new vehicle up for an electric makeover: the garbage truck.

“Within five years you’ll only have electric garbage trucks,” Ian Wright, founder of the startup Wrightspeed, told Quartz. Wright is designing a truck that combines a battery with an onboard natural-gas turbine to potentially replace diesel-powered garbage trucks.

Both Wrightspeed and Nikola Motor Company are going in big for the natural gas/electric combination as the new way to power trucks (both companies say the result is a “zero-emissions vehicle,” though details are so far scarce). Wrightspeed has released a video of its truck doing doughnuts in the desert, while Nikola is promising a big reveal in December.

Garbage trucks currently get around three miles per gallon and cost $42,000 a year to fuel on average, making them prime targets for replacement with a more efficient product. Wright admits his current pricing puts his trucks at about $150,000 more expensive than their diesel-powered brethren (which start around $150,000 themselves), and that cities and private garbage haulers are unlikely to cough up that kind of money, even if they save on fuel in the long run.

Nikola, on the other hand, is going for a replacement for the tractor-trailer. The company promises a vehicle that can haul 80,000 pounds for 1,000 miles before it needs to be refueled.

Not to be outdone by a couple of upstarts, Tesla (which Wright helped found) recently dropped hints that it, too, will soon enter the race to build the ultimate green truck—perhaps unveiling the Tesla Semi sometime next year. No word on whether it will abandon its all-electric pedigree for a similar gas-turbine design, or if it has other plans (master plans, even).

The vision of long-haul trucking and garbage collection both being powered by fleets of clean, quiet, and yet still-muscular trucks is certainly appealing. There aren’t many city dwellers who would miss waking up to the growl of a diesel engine outside their window at 5 a.m. on trash day. And the benefits in reducing pollution could, in theory, be huge—trucks over 8,500 pounds account for over a fifth of carbon emissions in the U.S. transportation sector. But while it’s cool to dream big and all, it’s worth considering that less-sexy measures, like improved diesel engines and trucks that run on overhead wires, might be the best bet for a low-carbon future for trucks.

(Read more: Quartz, Green Car Reports, “Can Tractor-Trailers Go Electric Along with Cars?”)

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