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AFVs at the Torrance City Yards Open House

Not every alternative-fueled vehicle is as svelte and sexy as my van; there are also lots of workhorses out there, like the GM EV1. Wait a minute, I think I got that backwards... Actually, except for the EV1 and the recently discontinued Honda EV Plus, all modern alternative-fueled vehicles from major automakers have been designed and marketed for fleet and commercial rather than consumer use; I had to sweet-talk a number of fleet sales folks to get my hands on my natural-gas-powered trucks. The City of Torrance, CA, has one of the first vehicle fleets to make a major commitment to alternative-fueled vehicles; the station they and the Gas Company built in 1995 to supply compressed natural gas (CNG) for their vehicles is open to the public, and has been one of my two main refueling stations, so I have a specially high regard for their efforts. Recently I was refueling my van at their station, and I happened to see a sign advertising an Open House at the City Yards, so I got to go behind the fence at the back of the station for the first time.

Torrance Van Pool CNG vehicle

Many of their AFVs are light-duty cars and trucks, like this Dodge Caravan minivan in their van pool, here up on a lift to show off its underbody CNG tanks. I also saw that they have at least one CNG-powered Honda Civic GX, and I was told that they have several bi-fuel (CNG and gasoline) vehicles in use. They have had the best results with these smaller vehicles, especially the bi-fuel ones; they have enough range that the unfortunately frequent downtime at the refueling station doesn't cause them great inconvenience in driving to the next station, and with a bi-fuel vehicle the driver can, of course, get gasoline just about anywhere. There are also enough of these lighter, more numerous vehicles around that a lot of miles have been accumulated, and most of the bugs have been worked out, so that reliability is good.

Torrance CNG street sweeper

The really unusual AFVs that they have are their CNG-powered street sweepers, like this one. Unfortunately, these heavy vehicles do not have the range or speed of lighter cars and trucks, and having to go to another refueling station is thus a relatively larger inconvenience. The city of Torrance also runs its own bus service, and they were considering adding CNG buses to that fleet, like the Los Angeles MTA and other big-city services; however, they have shelved those plans for the time being, until refueling stations become a bit more common or they can improve the uptime of their own station.

Torrance ZEST electric bus

They do, however, have at least one AFV in the Torrance Transit fleet! This is the ZEST (Zero Emissions Surface Transit) electric shuttle, built by Specialty Vehicle Mfg. Corp. with a drivetrain from GM Hughes Power Control Systems. It runs a lunchtime shuttle circuit (pun intended) between some of the major employment locations in the city and a couple of local restaurant rows. This was the first bus of its size placed into regular transit service; they have cut its service back from morning and evening rush hour service plus the lunch shuttle to just the lunchtime shuttle in order to extend its lifespan, as they have accumulated experience with its service and maintenance characteristics.

Rereading the above, it looks to me as if I have written a chronicle of unexpected problems and downsized plans. But that's the real world; Torrance has been out there at the forefront, trying things while they were new (and maybe not completely debugged yet!) in order to improve service to its residents, and they have learned lessons that they and others who will follow can use. And they have not, by any means, given up on being a leader in the area of AFV use; their next addition will be a hybrid-electric bus! Also, as I noted at the beginning, they appear to have had a generally satisfactory experience with the kind of light-duty vehicles that you and I would be likely to consider buying. Many thanks to Chris Pavis (heavy equipment operator) and Larry Johnson (street services supervisor) of the Torrance Street Department, and to Jim Mills (administration manager) and Kim Turner (operations manager) of Torrance Transit, for sharing with me their experiences and insights!

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