Will U.S. Accept Natural Gas Vehicles as More Than Fleet Cars?
By Clifford Atiyeh
Overshadowed by the hype about the latest hybrids at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show last week was this footnote from Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne: natural gas-powered pickups are on the way this year.
“We are going to bring them here, there is no doubt,” Marchionne said in an interview with Bloomberg, which quietly published a brief report a day after press conferences dried up.
I know, you were too busy clicking on that red Bentley Continental V8 or being teased by Acura, yet again, with another NSX concept. In the mainstream press, news about natural gas gets buried as deep as the fuel’s underground reserves. But Fiat, which increased its stake in Chrysler to 58.5 percent this month, is in good shape to offer what will likely be a natural gas Ram as it attempts to merge more product from its Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia lineups into the US.
The Italian giant sells 80 percent of all natural gas-powered cars and 55 percent of natural gas-powered light commercial trucks in Europe -- a total market of about 800,000 vehicles. In the US, Chrysler hasn’t sold a natural gas-powered anything since 2003 (Ford has been out of the game since 2004). Right now, only the Honda Civic, GMC Express, and handicapped-accessible MV-1 van are available in natural gas trim. That's a sales crumb of a few hundred per year.
That didn’t stop Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper from signing a joint memorandum with three other states in November, a sort of pledge to buy new natural gas-powered vehicles should more automakers decide to make them. Yesterday, four more states, including Maine and Utah, signed their governor's names to it. Sergio, apparently, has gotten the memo.
Even so, natural gas is really only a natural choice among fleets, where municipalities run sanitation trucks, buses, and other large vehicles in circles, then fill them up at gated, government-only refueling stations. And even if Chrysler sells such a Ram, the company says it will limit availability to a few states (most likely to the Gulf States and Southwest, where the bulk of the country’s natural gas fields and offshore rigs are located).
So why should you care about a fuel that few cars can actually run on? Why bother with natural gas when it’s so difficult to find any of the roughly 800 public refueling stations in the US?
If you’re an Oklahoman who just paid 78 cents per gallon, you're probably wondering why other Americans are asking these questions. Even in pricey Massachusetts, natural gas sells for $2.38 per gallon (since it’s compressed and not a liquid, this is the equivalent to a gallon of gasoline). Burning it produces less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline and, unlike ethanol, natural gas can be shipped in existing pipelines without any nod to OPEC.
Since I’m a born-and-bred New Englander, I’ll never, ever pack up and move to Muskogee. But I tried living on natural gas for a week, and you know what? I’ll gladly keep paying my local Hess station for $50+ fill-ups. Because like the current crop of electric cars, natural gas cars are too restrictive for the real world.
My little Honda Civic Natural Gas test vehicle required careful, premeditated travel during my round trip from Boston to Connecticut. Before leaving, I had to refuel at Logan Airport. Later, I had to search for Connecticut’s only public natural gas station -- which charged me $3.89 per gallon for being Connecticut’s only public natural gas station. Each of the three stations I visited had their own odd way of clamping onto my car’s nozzle, and the hissing sound didn’t make me feel any better about jiggering the handle.
Range is reduced to about 240 miles, far less than that of the Civic Hybrid. When I almost drained the Nissan Leaf, I knew at least that I could drag a cord to a random outlet; take one trip too many in this Civic, and there’s no siphoning a line from someone’s kitchen stove.
Natural gas tanks are even bulkier than batteries, since they can’t be elegantly stacked or placed into myriad shapes and configurations. On big vans like the GMC Express, this isn’t a terrible problem. For small passenger cars, the tank gobbles up more than half the trunk, barely leaving room for a few grocery bags. At least the overall driving experience – save for some lost horsepower – remains intact.
More problems stand in the way. Federal tax credits for buying and refueling natural gas-powered vehicles have expired. Unlike the billions in grant money marked for battery development, there is no incentive, beyond that nice little letter from Colorado, for manufacturers to make the cars or for stations to be built. At the rate this Congress is headed, we’re more likely to see reform on black-footed ferrets than on an alternative fuel available right here, right now.
If the storage tanks get smaller and more stations open, I’ll add my name and promise to buy a natural gas car. If our gasoline reaches Europe’s hellish prices, I just might consider Oklahoma.
If there were multiple stations,probably around $2 A gallon,I'd buy one in A new york second.
The major oil companies don't want us switching from gasoline.The profit they make from gas is
so much.Obama agrees.
If ya believe in T.boone Pickens we should have had these vehicles years ago.
The article fails to mention that you can fill them up at your own home.
Natural Gas is the future of motor vehicle fuel. There is massive amounts of it. It is cheap. As the article mentioned, it's less than $1 a gallon - if you have your own compressor.
Batteries are expensive and toxic to produce. You cannot legally dispose of NiMH or Lithium batts in regular trash.
We have plenty of natural gas in the US.
As others have mentioned, you can have gasoline and natural gas in the same vehicle. The engine is the same. The problem with the tanks taking up storage space is because the vehicles are designed for gasoline, and then retrofitted with gas. If you look at two city buses, one diesel and one gas - they look the same, have identical passenger room - because the tanks are integrated into the design.
The real problem is that you don't have to have complicated refining of natural gas. Because of that, oil companies fear that hundreds of gas companies will get into the market - compare that to the few brands of gasoline. That plus you might completely skip service stations by using a home compression station. Then remember that automakers have no interest in clean fuels that require no emmissions equipment. Less breakdowns = less parts sold. And under your hood, half the stuff there is emmissions related. A pure natural gas car would cost thousands less.
The real cutting edge is vehicles with natural gas turbines that produce electricity. Incredibly efficient. Electric motors propel the vehicle. Less batteries than electric cars.
I grew up driving propane powered trucks in the Mississippi Delta and using natural gas, the most abundant energy source on earth, would mean an end to self service fill ups. It's a bit more complicated than most drivers could handle. It would bring back fond memories though; That stuff burns so clean there are no deposits left in the combustion chamber of an engine..
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