Are fuel-cell big rigs the future of trucking?
It seems like a done deal except for the specifics:
The 60 Freeway – like an industrial belt holding up the San Gabriel Valley’s economy – is a straight, flat shot from the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles via the Alameda Corridor to the warehouses of Industry and the Inland Empire. It’s a dream for truckers because there’s hardly any grade to climb, unlike the 10 and 210 freeways.
So it was not surprising that Southern California Association of Governments approved a double-decker truck lane for the 60 Freeway last month as part of a goods movement plan. The ports of L.A. and Long Beach have the goods, and the East San Gabriel Valley can handle the movement, at least that’s how SCAG sketched it out in a four-year Regional.
Transportation Plan currently being circulated for comments before a final vote in April.
While the draft plan was approved over the objections of the cities of Diamond Bar, Walnut, West Covina, Chino Hills, Montebello, South El Monte and Pico Rivera, the devil lies in the details. SCAG, which is light on specifics, says the double-decker truck lane would add two lanes in each direction and must be zero-emission.
But has anyone seen big-rig trucks not spewing tailpipe emissions? Would this dedicated double-decker truck lane be 50 feet high and would it sit above the San Jose Creek, a non-road right-of-way just north of the freeway?
Would the structure be mag-lev like a Disneyland Monorail or some other kind of electrified infrastructure with overhead power lines matching the ones that juice the Gold Line or Blue Line light-rail trains?
No one at SCAG could say which, if any of those scenarios, would be approved.
“We are not tied to any technology, as long as it is zero emission,” said SCAG Executive Director Hassan Ikhrata.
Over at Walnut and Diamond Bar, they said they receive an overburden of trucks and don’t want any more, period.
But now, a couple of upstart, green companies in the South Bay say they are testing a new kind of technology never-before used on big-rig trucks that will satisfy SCAG’s emission-free requirement, while enabling truckers to reach their destinations without a single drop of pollution entering the atmosphere. If they are successful, they say an East-West Freight Corridor could be built much cheaper and without any electrified roadway. Most important, the impact to Puente Valley residents would be minimal.
“We have the solution now,” said Rudy Tapia, president of Vision Motors in El Segundo, developer of the Tyrano big rig which runs on an onboard fuel cell that powers a battery pack. It produces zero emissions, only water vapor.
A fleet of his Tyranos could be hauling everything from computers to cucumbers on the 710 and 60 freeways by the end of next year, he said.
“We don’t have to do some futuristic thing where we electrify the road or have electric wires overhead. Just give us some incentive and we could put this in by next year,” said Tapia, a Southern California native.
What if emission-free big rigs took to the 60, emitting only water vapor and as quiet as church mice? Would local cities then be in favor?
“So there will be these specialized trucks on the 60 and also all the other trucks on the 60,” said Diamond Bar Councilwoman Carol Herrera. “I think we’ll have both. So traffic will almost double.”
Passing the test
Being green is all the incentive Vic LaRosa needs. As CEO and president of Total Transportation Services, Inc. near Compton, LaRosa wants to lead the country in emission-free hauling. He sees it as a win-win, for the community and for his clients.
His company runs 111 cleaner diesel big-rigs, which cut 35.5 tons of nitrogen oxides and 4.4 tons of particulate matter annually.
Later, TTSI invested in eight liquid natural gas tractors to operate in the ports; these cut 57.6 tons of NOx and 3.8 tons of particulate matter each year. Both these pollutants blow into the San Gabriel Valley and produce smog, even ozone, which speeds up the aging process in the lungs, causes asthma in children and in the case of tiny particles, cause premature deaths.
But LaRosa was not satisfied because he believes the future of the planet lies in vehicles that pollute zero emissions. So at the end of July he bought one of Tapia’s hydrogen-powered trucks and is testing it on a 25-mile delivery route in the South Bay.
“It is probably your best answer (regarding the East-West Corridor along the 60 Freeway) where they’ve talked about building mag-levs and other automotive systems. The problem with fixing things into a corridor is it is extremely expensive. The nice thing about the Vision technology is it is mobile. Because you never know where you’ll build your next warehouse,” LaRosa said.
So far, the battery-powered truck performed well, he said. The torque is twice that of a diesel cab and the horsepower is excellent. But the batteries alone only allow a 25-mile range, he said.
“It is a wonderful piece of equipment. We are still debugging minor issues,” he said.
Recently, the fuel cell leaked. But on Friday, LaRosa said that was fixed. Now he’s going about testing the long-range capacity of the truck. The second-phase of testing began last week, he said.
“So far, we’ve pulled containers around with it. We’ve done a lot of demonstrations. It is running from the ports to various warehouses in the South Bay,” LaRosa said.
LaRosa is so sure of this technology he has filed a letter of intent with Vision Motors to buy 400 of the trucks. Local energy companies plan on putting hydrogen filling stations at the ports and along the route of these trucks.
“We have access to low-cost hydrogen. We should see a 40 percent to 50 percent cost saving (compared to the cost of diesel fuel),” Tapia said.
If his trucks pass the road test, LaRosa foresees a fleet of hydrogen-powered trucks running from the ports to warehouses in the South Bay, in Industry and beyond by the middle to end of next year.
“We should be able to do the city of Industry fairly easily,” Tapia said.
Both believe the cost of the truck will also go down as soon as Vision Motors begin making more on a regular basis.
The cost of the new trucks, plus maintenance, which is a lot less than a diesel truck, and hydrogen for the fuel cell, will be “way less expensive,” LaRosa claims.
“It will be half the cost of a diesel truck,” he said.
Herrera is reserving judgment, at least until the new environmental impact report for the transportation plan is released.
“I would like to know how this is going to work,” she said.
Tapia is philosophical. As long as trucks are needed to deliver goods, they may as well be ones that don’t pollute or make much noise.
“There are benefits to the impacted communities. Plus, if you want to buy clothing at the mall, the stuff needs to get there somehow,” Tapia said.