Port of LA gets keys to first zero-emission truck

A Tyrano truck is displayed at Vision Industries headquarters in El Segundo, CA. Vision Industries handed over the keys to this zero emissions, hydrogen fuel cell class 8 truck to the Port of Los Angeles Friday.
A Tyrano truck is displayed at Vision Industries headquarters in El Segundo, CA. Vision Industries handed over the keys to this zero emissions, hydrogen fuel cell class 8 truck to the Port of Los Angeles Friday. Katherine Davis/KPCC

It looks just like a regular big-rig truck, but when the motor starts it sounds more like a Prius. It's called the Tyrano, and it is the world's first zero emission, hydrogen fuel cell-powered class 8 truck. On Friday, the Port of L.A. got the keys to the first such semis to drive on Los Angeles' roads.

The ports, together with trucking company Total Transportation Services, Inc. (TTSI), will begin using one hydrogen fuel cell truck for a trial period of one year. That will give the ports and TTSI enough time to test the new technology. The effort is a part of the ports' Technology Advancement Program.

Representatives from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and members of the California State Assembly met with leaders of Vision Industries, the company behind the Tyrano, on Friday for the announcement. Vision Industries had three of the trucks on hand at their El Segundo headquarters, one of which was handed over to the Port of L.A.

"We're testing lots of ideas and this is one of them – and it looks really promising," Port of L.A. spokesperson Phillip Sanfield told KPCC.

The truck is designed to release no emissions – running on lithium ion batteries and tanks of hydrogen which use a fuel cell to convert the hydrogen into electricity. When the hydrogen is converted to energy, the only emission is water. Because the battery re-charges itself as the truck is driven, there is no long plug-in time like an electric vehicle. Instead the truck will require stops at hydrogen fueling stations.

Emily Flores, a truck driver for TTSI, will be the first driver to get to take the new truck out on the road. She said she's excited to be get behind the wheel of this extremely powerful new vehicle.

"It's nothing like a regular truck," she said, adding that she's happy to say goodbye to noise and headache-inducing diesel fumes in favor of a quieter and more powerful ride.

Markus Herm, Director of Operations for Vision Industries said in an interview that the truck's 540 horsepower and 3,300 pounds per foot torque is almost double the capacity of a typical diesel truck.

The Tyrano does have limitations, though. On a full tank of hydrogen, it can only go about 200 miles. That means, until there are more hydrogen fueling stations in Los Angeles, the new 'green' truck can only be used for short trips. And hydrogen stations make some nervous. Similar technology being developed in the U.K. has some concerned about safety.

"It took six months in London to convince people about hydrogen fueling stations because people were so freaked out" Herm said, adding that the hydrogen bomb and Hindenburg explosion have made hydrogen power synonymous with disaster, but he feels those fears are based on misconceptions. The Tyrano's hydrogen tanks are so safe, he said that "you could pretty much shoot at them."

In addition to needing to refuel every 200 miles, another drawback: Tyrano will only be able to go about 66 miles per hour. And with legal restrictions, Herm added, that might be cut back to 55.

Another issue is Tyrano's price tag. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have pulled together about $1 million for this single-truck project.

"Not a dime of taxpayer money is being spent on this," Sanfield said. The program is funded almost entirely from shipping revenue, with some funding coming from federal grants.

The hope is that in the long run, the new trucks should prove less expensive. According to Schuermann, one pound of hydrogen fuel gets the Tyrano about as far as a gallon of diesel would get a regular truck for about half the price.

"That should make these very attractive to trucking companies," he said.

The environmental benefits and long-term savings also make the trucks appealing to politicians, the ports, and trucking companies, who are under pressure to comply with initiatives such as the Clean Trucks Program. That program seeks to improve air quality around the ports and has been the focus of several recent lawsuits.

"We're all working so hard to get California to be green and healthy and wise because in the long run it does save us a heck of a lot of money," said California State Assembly member Betsy Butler.

Even so, there is still much more to be done. "We need to get to the next level," Sanfield said. "And [the hydrogen fuel cell truck] is one of the potential technologies."

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