Vision Motor Corp., a Long Beach fuel-cell vehicle manufacturer that has struggled to find a market for its heavy-duty, short-haul trucks is in a drive to increase efficiency.

In addition to updating the mechanics of the vehicles, however, it’s developing software called Intelligent Range Extender that combines GPS technology with fleet management software to evaluate which routes will allow truckers to get the most efficiency from a fuel cell.

The software, which could eventually be licensed to other vehicle manufacturers, is to be initially employed on its next generation of trucks intended for customers involved in drayage operations, the hauling of shipping containers to and from the ports complexes to distribution centers nearby.

“It looks at current traffic conditions and it basically calculates for the driver what container to pick up first, what route to take,” said Martin Schuermann, Vision’s chief executive. “It basically plans the driver’s day based on the jobs he has and optimizes the efficiency.”

That efficiency is supposed to increase the range of vehicles like Vision’s current prototype, the Tyrano, which is advertised to be able to travel 200 miles on a charge.

Squeezing a few more miles out of the trucks, however, might not be enough to boost sales. The initial investment required to buy an alternative fuel truck is substantially higher than that for acquiring a new diesel truck. A company buying a diesel rig might spend $165,000 to $175,000, compared with the $300,000 to $450,000 cost of a zero-emission vehicle.

Victor La Rosa, chief executive of Total Transportation Systems Inc. of Rancho Dominguez, is testing the trucks but is concerned about the price.

“We have made a corporate decision to get to zero emissions as early as possible,” he said. “The big hindrance has been the availability of affordable technology.”

La Rosa has been testing alternative vehicle trucks since 2011 and, while he has embraced the need to switch to trucks that don’t pollute, he hasn’t been convinced. Three years into the testing program, he’s still kicking the tires.

Total Transportation agreed in July 2011 to purchase as many as 100 trucks from Vision at a total price of about $27 million, contingent on approval of the Tyrano prototype. It is also testing a vehicle from TransPower of Poway.

Thus far, neither of the options has proved to be a perfect choice.

“It’s too soon to commit to what avenue we’re going to go down because we haven’t demonstrated the products long enough,” La Rosa also said. “It’s a little premature to say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this tomorrow.’ We’re in a position where we want to do a lot more experimentation with the vehicle.”

What’s more, La Rosa said the nation lacks sufficient infrastructure to support widespread use of electric trucks or hydrogen fuel cell rigs.

On the other hand, he said zero-emission vehicles, which have fewer moving parts, can last longer than their diesel counterparts.

Optimism high

Vision, founded in 2004, reported a net loss of $1.1 million on zero revenue in the quarter ended in March, slightly better than a loss of nearly $1.2 million, also with no revenue, the year earlier.

Still, Schuermann is undaunted by the challenge of finding a market for the vehicles.

“There’s still an increase in need for these vehicles. You see on the national and state level legislators trying to create legislation, trying to get these vehicles on the market,” he said. “It’s no longer just the cost of diesel fuel and maintenance costs. There are more complicated factors.”

Vision has received some support from governmental organizations. In May, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the company nearly $150,000 to demonstrate a hydrogen fuel cell trash truck with the city of Santa Monica.

The company also stands to benefit from $4.4 million worth of Energy Department grants to support demonstration projects at ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Houston.

California has a number of incentive programs to aid in the purchase of newer-model diesel or zero-emission vehicles, but Schuermann said the production of zero-emission vehicles in California could receive considerable benefits if the state were to adopt a system of credits for heavy-duty vehicles mirroring the one already established for other cars and trucks.

The existing system has required manufacturers to either sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles or purchase credits from companies that exceeded the threshold.

Still, there does not seem to be an immediate opening for such a policy to benefit truck makers.

“Nobody’s talking seriously about a rule for trucks right now,” said John Boesel, Chief Executive of Calstart, a Pasadena organization that supports the commercial use of clean vehicles. Calstart works with the California Air Resources Board to administer the California Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project.

Since 2010, the program has aided the purchase of more than 400 zero-emission trucks and buses, as well as some 1,200 hybrid heavy vehicles, said Melanie Turner, Air Resources Board spokeswoman. The state has spent more than $50 million on the program.

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