Electric cars are ubiquitous on California’s freeways, but not so much electric trucks. That’s about to change.

On Thursday, California became the first state in the nation to require trucks to go emissions-free, a major step in combatting dirty air, notably in poorer communities ringed by highways and warehouses, and addressing the prickly problem of climate change.

Resisting opposition from the trucking industry and oil companies, the California Air Resources Control Board approved a rule that forces automakers to sell a minimum number of zero-emissions big rigs, delivery vans and large pickups, starting in 2024. The quotas will be phased in and by 2035 require most new trucks in the state to produce no pollution at all.

The ambitious move is expected to reverberate well beyond California, as states as far away as Connecticut, New Jersey and New York expressed interest in mimicking the rule and vehicle manufacturers internationally eye a growing market for electric and hydrogen-powered trucks.

“The rest of the world is watching,” said Dan Sperling, a member of the state air board. “This is a revolution that’s on the side of history.”

Trucks are everywhere on California roads, hauling freight from ports, fruits and vegetables from San Joaquin Valley farms, and consumer goods from storerooms along Interstate 5. While they still make up a lot less traffic than cars, trucks often have big diesel engines and travel many more miles, making their exhaust more significant.

Despite the state’s already aggressive air quality rules, seven of the nation’s 10 smoggiest cities are in California, according to the American Lung Association. The pollution is known to cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems, often disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods.

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“We need regulations that move us into a healthy and equitable future,” said Taylor Thomas, who spoke through an audio feed at Thursday’s virtual air board meeting. She lives in Long Beach and developed asthma after growing up in a disadvantaged area near a freeway. “We live with these trucks every day. … Our communities are suffering from pollution burdens.”

According to the air board’s analysis, the new regulation, known as the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, will reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxide by 59,000 tons by 2040, producing $9 billion in health benefits.

California already requires automakers to sell a minimum number of electric cars, and the state is currently battling with the Trump administration to maintain more stringent tailpipe standards for vehicles.

The Advanced Clean Trucks rule also forges new ground in California’s climate fight. The transportation sector has been one of the most difficult areas to coax greenhouse gas reductions. It accounts for about 40% of the state’s heat-trapping gases. The new regulation is expected to cut the equivalent of 17 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2040.

The agency’s analysis also found that while zero-emissions trucks are more expensive to manufacture than their gas-powered counterparts, the fuel savings would outweigh the higher up-front costs. About $6 billion will be saved through 2040, according to the air board.

Many in the trucking industry said the transition wouldn’t be nearly as easy and beneficial as the air board suggests. They cited the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy as a financial obstacle to manufacturing the new, cleaner trucks and they said if they build them, companies won’t like the price tag.

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“Commercial vehicle customers are just not going to buy” zero emissions vehicles, said Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association.

Critics also questioned whether the infrastructure and technology, including charging stations and batteries, were adequate for the rollout of so many zero-emissions vehicles.

A representative for Tesla at Thursday’s meeting, however, said the groundwork for clean trucks would soon be in place. The Palo Alto-based automaker is planning to produce an electric pickup and semi-truck in 2021.

The Advanced Clean Trucks rule applies to trucks that weigh more than 8,500 pounds, from heavy-duty pickups and full-size vans to box trucks and tractor-trailers. The sales requirements and their starting dates vary with the type of vehicle. By 2045, the goal is to have all new trucks sold be emissions-free.

The regulation was widely supported by environmentalists, clean-energy advocates and justice groups as well as a number of environmental regulators from other states who took advantage of the air board’s online meeting to voice their enthusiasm.

“There’s clearly national interest in the Advanced Clean Trucks rule,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Gov. Gavin Newsom released a statement Thursday evening applauding the state’s forward-thinking action during the throes of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic, climate change is still an existential threat — both to our way of life and our children’s health,” he said. “Communities and children of color are often forced to breathe our most polluted air, and today’s vote moves us closer toward a healthier future for all of our kids.”

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Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander





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