California Leads the United States in Pioneering Low Emission Trucks

Executives of seven growing California high tech companies revealed some secrets to their success at a recent workshop at the California Energy Commission on zero- and near-zero emission medium and heavy duty trucks.

Although some proprietary information was withheld, the entrepreneurs disclosed how they cut costs, steered around roadblocks and ramped up manufacturing. The companies are committed to building cleaner-fueled vehicles and helping grow California’s economy.

All of them got started with grants from the Energy Commission, which provides up to $100,000 annually for innovative technology in alternative fuels to help the state reach its clean air and climate change goals.

“The Energy Commission took a chance on us,” said Mike Simon, CEO of Transportation Power Inc. (TransPower) who received a grant in 2011. “No venture capitalist would have done that, I know because I tried to find one. It was a very embryonic concept.”

Cummins Westport Inc. started taking orders nationwide for its very low nitrogen oxide ISL G natural gas engine truck. The company brought a refuse truck to the Energy Commission headquarters for the December 2 workshop.

Manufacturing of the truck will begin in April. It is rated at .02 grams per brake horsepower an hour, 90 percent lower exhaust emissions than the current limit and equal to 1,080 diesel buses. The engine meets the California Air Resources Board’s certification eight years in advance of the 2023 near zero nitrogen oxide schedule.

“We kept getting feedback in 2010 from people saying you can’t get below .2 in this industry,” said Tom Hodek, Cummins’ general manager of new product development.

Hodek said The company received orders for 66 units, even before prices were set. Much of the interest for the trucks comes from North America, Europe and China, he said.

Another grantee, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), is working with Siemens and other partners on a catenary line that would allow large cargo trucks to run at 55 miles per hour on overhead electric wires, transporting cargo to and from the Port of Long Beach. The project would provide zero to near-zero emission transportation in an area significantly challenged by air pollution.

Four different types of all-electric or hybrid trucks are being built to run on the catenary. They will have batteries that are charged by the electric wires to allow them to run off the catenary.

Implementation of the catenary system on a larger scale would require cost reductions for both the catenary and the trucks, said Joe Impullitti, Technology Advancement Office Program Supervisor for SCAQMD.

Since starting a manufacturing line for Wrightspeed’s range-extended electric hybrid powertrain in Alameda earlier this year, the company has a backlog of 42 truck powertrain orders, said Wrightspeed CEO Ian Wright, who co-founded Tesla.

The company started making delivery trucks, but realized the better market was electric-hybrid powertrains for refuse trucks. The trucks can handle 40 to 50 percent grades like those found in San Francisco, Wright said.

He said some of the lessons learned were designing and making nearly every component themselves to reduce costs, listening to customers, staying focused on their goals, and not compromising their business model to get grant funding.

TransPower, which makes an electric drive system for trucks and buses, including two for the catenary project, has used several Energy Commission grants to build systems for seven cargo trucks, a yard tractor for IKEA, a vehicle-to-grid school bus, an on-road truck, and a lift truck.

This year, TransPower has contracts for drive systems at a U.S. Naval base, the New York Subway, and for 15 fleet operators.

One of the lessons that TransPower learned was employing a vertically integrated manufacturing process. Common components were used to build subsystems that can be used in a variety of ways, helping to keep costs down, Simon said.

Motiv Power Systems, Inc. partners with original equipment manufacturers to make all-electric shuttle buses, refuse trucks, school buses and work trucks. Using grants from the Energy Commission, Motiv took a concept and built it into a commercial manufacturing line.

Motiv CEO Jim Castelaz said its trucks not only offer substantially reduced emissions compared with diesel engines, but also makes driving easier.

“One driver said it changed his life,” Castelaz said. ”He sits all day in the delivery truck, one foot away from the engine. It’s not noisy, it doesn’t smell like diesel, it doesn’t shake, and his back feels much better because he doesn’t brake as much.”

Proterra Inc., which makes all-electric public transit buses, has announced plans to build a second plant in the City of Industry, Calif., to handle new orders.

“The California Energy Commission is why we got there so quickly,” said Kent Leacock, director of government relations for Proterra, who cited battery development as one reason for moving to California.

Proterra is making one bus a week in South Carolina and plans to duplicate its efforts in California. The buses don’t rust, are “dead quiet,” faster, and the brakes don’t wear out nearly as fast as diesel buses because they don’t require much braking, Leacock said.

The company added 15 to 20 jobs in the Bay Area where they moved their corporate headquarters and intends to add 70 to 80 jobs in Southern California. The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development helped find the Industry location, which was key to the project getting off the ground, he said.

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California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission is the state's primary energy policy and planning agency created by the Legislature in 1974.
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