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.
Hello fabricdyer and anyone else who thinks I may be wrong..... If what you say is true
why does it COST ME MORE every year to heat my home with NG ? If I were sure that my utility bills WOULD NOT RISE I might be in favor of ng vehicles are you all sure ? I live in a northern state .....we use a lot of ng to heat with and I have no other alternatives .... solar
and wind are not YET viable thanks & have a nice day !!!!!!
In Pakistan they sell a conversion kit that enables the driver to run on Compressed Natural Gas and when the tank goes empty the car switches to Gasoline. Why don't we get already used technology to USA and then the Gas stations will have one more pump added to Unleaded Regular,Preminm,Diesel and CNG( Compressed Natural Gas)
I hope we get the energy independence we need from imported oil.
In addressing the "Compressed NG scares me" comment: I am a retired police officer. And I assure you, you do not want to be around when one gallon of gasoline explodes !!! I attended an Army explosive demo once and saw it first hand. It's one of the most explosive substances they had in fact. Not only that but NG rises into the air once it's in the open, gasoline does not. Instead It simply spreads on the ground (or pavement) and stays there. So in investigating an auto accident you pray you can at least get it (partially) washed away by the FD and even then the explosive fumes remain until they eventually dissipated into the air. So now which one scares you the most? I'll take NG myself even if they both are explosive. But then again that's what makes them both "fuel", isn't it?
Please .....people WAKE UP NOW...it would be very foolish to use the one and ONLY
economical way we have to heat our homes , our hot water and to cook with in our homes and businesses. If we start using our natural gas for vehicles and we create a shortage
( real or imagined ) what do you think will happen to the price of natural gas or propane ?
Ask yourself ... are you willing to pay DOUBLE < TRIPLE Or MORE for your home or
business...remember we can't heat our homes with gasoline ! We will have NO option !
I for one say FORGET NATURAL GAS AS an alternative ! Sorry T. Boone
Finally someone is listening to T. Boone Pickens after all! Natural gas powered vehicles makes more since than anything going right now. Yes, natural gas is plentiful in the U.S. and very competitively priced. In fact, home heating costs have actually dropped in most areas of the U.S. due to the abundance of the product.
Natural gas powered vehicles is not something new. LPG/CNG has been used for years in trucks and farm tractors with great success. As far as automotive applications are concerned It would possibly eliminate or reduce a lot of the current anti pollution devices required today and the fuel tank would be designed into the vehicle from square one. The fuel burns clean, engines last much longer than gasoline fueled engines and you can go much longer between oil changes because of less crankcase contaminants. The current issue is product distribution but that can be worked out if we want to. Bring it on!
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