The EPA is expected to propose rules requiring heavy trucks to increase their fuel economy by up to 40 percent by 2027.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Inside the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, a mammoth contraption, with steel rollers, advanced electronics and exhaust tubes, is nearing completion.

The project — an enormous “truck treadmill” — is the new centerpiece of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) complex. The truck lab, one of the largest vehicle-testing centers in the world, will play a crucial role in shaping and enforcing a new environmental mandate by the Obama administration that could transform the U.S. trucking industry.

This week, the EPA is expected to propose regulations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from heavy-duty trucks, requiring that their fuel economy increase up to 40 percent by 2027, compared with levels in 2010, according to people briefed on the proposal. A tractor-trailer now averages 5 to 6 miles to a gallon of diesel. The new regulations would seek to raise that average to 9 miles a gallon. A truck’s emissions can vary greatly, depending on how much it is carrying.

The hotly debated rules, which cover almost any truck larger than a standard pickup, are the latest in a stack of climate-change policy measures on which President Obama hopes to build his environmental legacy. Already, his administration has proposed rules to cut emissions from power plants and has imposed significantly higher fuel-efficiency standards on passenger vehicles.

The truck proposals could cut millions of tons of carbon-dioxide pollution while saving millions of barrels of oil. Trucks account for one-quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles in the United States, even though they make up only 4 percent of traffic, the EPA says.

But the rules will also impose significant burdens on the nation’s trucking industry, the heart of the nation’s economy, hauling food, raw goods and other freight nationwide.

It is expected the new rules will add $12,000 to $14,000 to the manufacturing cost of a new tractor-trailer, although EPA studies estimate that cost will be recouped after 18 months by fuel savings.

Environmental advocates say that without regulation, the contribution of U.S. trucks to global warming will soar. “Trucking is set to be a bad actor if we don’t do something now,” said Jason Mathers, head of the Green Freight program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Some in the trucking industry are wary. “I’ll put it this way: We told them what we can do, but they haven’t told us what they plan to do,” said Tony Greszler, vice president for government relations for Volvo Group North America, one of the largest manufacturers of big trucks. “We have concerns with how this will play out.”

Investment, innovation

The EPA, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, began its initial phase of big-truck fuel-economy regulation in 2011, and those efforts have been widely seen within the industry as successful. But meeting the initial standards, such as using more efficient tires, was not especially difficult.

The proposed rules will ask much more of the industry. They will require more investment and innovation, such as tweaking engines and transmissions, improving aerodynamics and using lighter materials. More disruptive options, such as recycling engine heat to drive a secondary turbine, or moving away from diesel, are also under consideration. Already, some bigger fleets like United Parcel Service have started outfitting some trucks with natural gas.

“Fuel is either at the top or near the top of truck operators’ costs,” said Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. Reducing those costs, he added, is good for business and the environment.

Obama led the cheerleading for his truck rules. In a speech last year signaling the rules, he said, “Because they haul about 70 percent of all domestic freight — 70 percent of the stuff we use, everything from flat-screen TVs to diapers to produce to you name it — every mile that we gain in fuel efficiency is worth thousands of dollars of savings every year.”

John Wall, chief technical officer at Cummins, a leading manufacturer of truck engines, said his company has “tried to engage proactively in the development of the regulations” and has found federal officials to be open-minded about what the company thinks can be achieved.

Others in the industry hold a different view.

John Yandell Jr., president of Yandell Truckaway in Pleasant Hill, Calif., said that fuel is the second-highest cost for his family business and that he would love to get better mileage on his fleet, which operates short-haul regional routes. But, he said, he is skeptical that can be achieved in the near future in a way that is affordable for him.

“Twenty years ago, my trucks were getting five miles per gallon; today, they are getting around 6.2 to 6.4,” he said, but getting up to 9 or 10 seems like a pipe dream.

Making history

As with any new environmental rules, the details are complicated and will take time to sort out. The public will be asked to comment on the proposed rules before the final version is put in place next year.

At the testing lab, the truck treadmill was put through its paces. A semitruck was fastened down with thick chains secured to even thicker steel anchors. A driver started the engine. Orange tubes, intended to collect the exhaust when the formal testing begins, hung from the ceiling.

“This was a hole in the ground before Christmas,” said David Haugen, director of the EPA lab’s testing and advanced-technology division. “Now we’re ready to make history.”