MANAGER: Victor “Vic” La Rossa
FLEET: Total Transportation Solutions, Rancho Dominguez, CA
OPERATION: Drayage, truckload, freight brokering and warehousing.
Victor “Vic” La Rossa isn't gun-shy when it comes to tackling freight industry issues head on. Just two years after his company, Total Transportation Services Inc. (TTSI), started out as an air-freight agency in 1989, La Rossa shifted gears, changing his business plan by pooling shipments and using expedited trucks to offer a cheaper alternative.
Over the ensuing decades, TTSI expanded into a wide range of other freight businesses — port drayage, transloading, warehousing, TL management, brokerage, even local pickup and delivery.
In 2008, TTSI purchased eight liquefied natural gas (LNG) powered Kenworth T800 tractors and became the first company to put LNG trucks into full-time drayage service at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Now, TTSI has taken delivery of its first hydrogen-powered fuel cell Class 8 tractor, a Cascadia daycab equipped with a Siemens 560-hp. equivalent electric motor, 3,300 lbs. worth of lithium ion batteries, tied together with a hydrogen fuel cell unit built by Vision Motor Corp. The company has 400 more such tractors on order. The questions La Rossa is asking now, however, are what kind of maintenance will these fuel cell-powered big rigs require, and what do TTSI's technicians need to know in order to perform it?
The short answer to La Rossa's question, says Markus Herm, Vision's director of operations, is “not much.” That being said, since the most critical maintenance item is the air filtration unit, Vision is building a special gauge for the truck's dashboard to alert drivers if the fuel cell's air filter starts to plug up.
“Fuel cells need extremely pure air to function,” La Rossa explains. “Any sort of contaminant or particle could damage the fuel cell, reducing its effectiveness and eventually leading to the need to replace it.”
Air, or more precisely, oxygen, is a critical ingredient for fuel cells. Basically, fuel cells combine oxygen and hydrogen via a chemical process that produces electricity, with water vapor as the only by-product emitted.
The entire process is governed by electronic controls, though Herm is of the opinion that few if any repairs will be required to them over the vehicle's expected lifecycle. The batteries are expected to last 10 years. The cooling unit for the fuel cell won't require maintenance because it's a completely sealed system, he adds.
La Rossa expects that his technicians will need to go through additional training in electronics and potentially some in chemistry in order to fully understand how fuel cells work and what potential problems might crop up.
He also points out that the specs for its fuel cell-powered rigs are going to change over time as well. For starters, these trucks, which are delivered as glider kits, were spec'd with a 225-in. wheelbase to ensure room existed on the chassis to install the battery pack. Vision added the electric motor, batteries, fuel cell, and other components. La Rossa now believes that the wheelbase can be reduced to 205 in.
Although there's room for three, the trucks currently have two 14-lb. capacity hydrogen tanks, giving them an effective range of about 250 mi.
While these fuel-cell-powered daycabs are currently quite pricey — about $260,000 per tractor — La Rossa expects to save money over time by eliminating oil changes, paying 30 to 40% less for hydrogen compared to diesel, less wear and tear on brakes, tax incentives, and other “green” benefits that may develop over time.
“For example, the ports are discussing the creation of ‘green truck lanes,’ where those operators running natural-gas or fuel-cell trucks won't have to pay any fees when entering or exiting the port,” he says. “That could save our operation a lot of time and money.”