Hungry for more, not afraid to fail, and a commitment to advancing the industry. These are all common traits among the most innovative fleet executives we’ve meet in the industry.
They’re the people who introduce new technologies or new methods for doing things, and those who are no stranger to changing things up. Whether through groundbreaking and revolutionary breakthroughs, or by simply implementing something in a new way, truck fleet innovators challenge conventional notions of how things have been done before.
For HDT’s annual Truck Fleet Innovator awards, now in their 16th year, it’s about more than a single innovation. It’s a mindset. These leaders are often early adopters of technology, or frequently work with vendors and suppliers to develop or refine products to better meet their needs. HDT Innovators try new ways to address industry issues, such as safety, sustainability and fuel efficiency.Meet HDT’s 2022 Truck Fleet Innovators - Fleet Management - Trucking Info
In 2008, as many trucking companies were fighting the controversial new Clean Truck Program at the southern California ports, Vic La Rosa was already trying to green his drayage operations.
Total Transportation Services, founded in the late ‘80s, had really taken off when big-box stores began importing a lot of containerized goods from Asia. The impact of retail on TTSI’s drayage operations has been significant, and today it has operations at nearly every major port in the country.
Working closely directly with major retail importers, TTSI realized that many of those clients would eventually “take on an environmental twist,” La Rosa says. “We thought it was better to try to get out in front of that curve as soon as possible.”
So around the time the clean truck rules were approved, TTSI was adopting natural gas engines as well as experimenting with early battery-electric and fuel-cell technology.
At the time, he says, regulators had not done a good job of reaching out to the drayage community about the new emissions rules.
“Nobody understood what they were talking about,” La Rosa recalls. “We had never been approached about the pollution that these diesels put out, and the significant impact it has on the community. So when they announced the first clean air program, we started to do our own research. We decided, let’s try to understand what this movement is all about, and how far are the ports and the state and the regulators going to move the goalposts? After quite a bit of research, a lot of interviews with environmental groups, just trying to understand their perspective, we decided that the goalposts would continue to move until we get to zero. So we figured, let’s shoot right now for zero.”
The problem was, zero-emissions technology did not exist at the time.
“But it gave us a heck of an opportunity to start testing and start seeing how these vehicles were going to perform,” he says, and the company has been doing so ever since.
TTSI has been or soon will be evaluating BEV and FCEV trucks from multiple manufacturers.
“What we’ve learned over time is that nobody right now is ready for primetime,” La Rosa says. “There’s a couple of strong candidates out there. But nobody’s ready to take on the whole ball of wax, which includes full-service maintenance, which includes prices for vehicles that are not outrageous.”
If he had to make a decision today, he says, he would set up a fleet of about 60% fuel-cell electric and the balance battery-electric.
“We’re trying to get there, but right now, nobody has the manufacturing slots, nobody has all the parts, to do any mass production,” he says.
In the meantime, he says, “we still continue to make heavy investments in natural gas, because we believe natural gas is going to be the bridge. And it’s ready for primetime right now. I’m getting very, very close to zero [emissions], and I can afford to run it.”
La Rosa believes there’s a longer-term place for natural gas engines, too, especially the latest near-zero-emission versions running on renewables.
“Our feeling is that the whole nation is not going to be able to embrace zero emission at the same time,” he says. “We have to make sure that we’re ready in the areas that are going to be most sensitive, like California, and eventually New Jersey. But in other areas, we’re going to continue to push towards near zero, and natural gas gives us the best alternative to do that.
“So, as we go down this journey, we continue to watch the technology, we continue to watch the repairs and maintenance. And we continue to watch the costs.” So far, TTSI has relied on grants to help pay for its zero-emission evaluation programs.
When asked about lessons learned, La Rosa replies, “patience!”
“I think that the industry is going to go kicking and screaming into the future, but they’ll eventually get there,” he says. “I’m very optimistic that we can achieve these goals. The regulators, the environmental agencies, were more than delighted that we were willing to step up and test this technology. And there is a significant cost to us — because when these trucks are down, I’m losing productivity. So there is a lot of cost in experimenting with these technologies. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“We decided that the goalposts would continue to move until we get to zero [emissions]. So we figured, let’s shoot right now for zero.”