Chevrolet Impala CNG (© GM Media Archives)Click to enlarge picture

GM will offer a CNG Impala in 2014.

General Motors will launch a new CNG powered version of its big Chevrolet Impala sedan next year, making it the first maker to offer the ability to use the cheaper, cleaner fuel in a full-size model.

The announcement came in a speech by GM CEO Dan Akerson during a national summit meant to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Mideast oil boycott. That defining event led to skyrocketing gas prices, lines at U.S. gas stations and a serious economic recession. It also forced Detroit automakers to close a number of factories and gave the Japanese auto industry its first real crack at the American market.

Today, even with fuel prices having dipped slightly in recent months, there is strong demand for alternatives, and while much of the focus is on battery-based vehicles, there's also growing interest in compressed natural gas, which has become widely available with the increased use of fracking.

During his speech, Akerson stressed that a variety of different solutions ultimately will be needed, warning that, "energy security won't come from a one-off moonshot."

While there are potential problems with CNG — primarily the lack of a major refueling infrastructure, several makers now or will soon offer vehicles capable of running on the fuel. The Impala has the advantage of a large trunk in which to mount the cylindrical tanks needed to store the highly compressed fuel.

View Pictures:  2014 Chevrolet Impala

"Natural gas powertrains are one of the areas where we have increased investment because we believe the technology can satisfy the 'green' needs of both the environment and stockholders," said Akerson, during a speech to the Securing America's Energy Future summit in Washington, D.C.

The development of the battery-powered Chevrolet Volt has provided GM with a template for vehicles that run on CNG, the former Navy officer noted. GM already has a range of vans on the market that can run on CNG and LNG.

Akerson said that as with the upcoming CNG Impala, they are set up as bi-fuel vehicles, "with an engine that can switch seamlessly from CNG to gasoline." That will make it possible to operate the car even if it travels into areas where it isn't possible to refuel with the compressed gas.

"In addition, the Impala will carry a factory warranty on the entire powertrain and fuel system . . . just like our other CNG and LNG vehicles," he said, noting currently the vast majority of natural gas vehicles aren't covered by any kind of warranty.

Akerson cautioned that despite strong interest in CNG options, "our volumes will be small, at least initially" because, among other reasons, most of the customers will be commercial and government fleets, so "selling 750 to 1,000 units in the first model year would be a home run."

While GM's announcement breaks the classic chicken-and-egg syndrome, the GM CEO noted that even with the $100s of millions going into CNG development, refueling stations are "far from ubiquitous," with perhaps 1,200 available nationwide — and many of those set up specifically for private fleet use — compared to the nation's 168,000 retail gas stations.

Nonetheless, the potential benefits of adding more CNG vehicles could be huge. "Hypothetically, if the nation's entire heavy truck fleet switched from diesel to natural gas, we could reduce oil imports by about a third and sharply cut the fuel component of shipping costs," Akerson said, suggesting that investor and CNG advocate "T. Boone Pickens is spot-on when he says that using more natural gas can transform our economy and raise our standard of living."

Read Blog:  GM has Tesla in its sights

Akerson added that to give the CNG infrastructure time to play catch up, GM "got creative" and engineered two energy "reservoirs" for the Impala that will allow it to travel up to 150 miles on a tank of CNG and another 350 using gasoline.

The GM CEO said the automaker is "squarely focused" on making CNG more widely available by addressing other challenges, including the incremental costs and packaging issues associated with the fuel and with similar LNG systems.

During his speech, Akerson also hailed the progress being made in GM's electrification efforts, noting that, "Our engineers reduced the cost of the Volt's powertrain so we passed the savings on to consumers," in the form of a price reduction on the 2014 version of the plug-in hybrid.

Recalling the twin oil shocks of the 1970s and the ups and downs of fuel prices ever since, Akerson said smart companies increasingly recognize the benefits of secure, affordable and sustainable energy.

"Consumer demand, coupled with innovative, affordable technology always moves the needle," he said.

But he also reminded his audience to be careful and not race to embrace the newest and greatest technologies to come along at the expense of other alternatives.

"Remember coal gasification, fast-breeder nuclear reactors and cellulosic ethanol?" he asked. "They were all cut from the same bolt of cloth: promising technologies . . . but not profitable . . . and therefore not ready for prime time," Akerson said.

In the end, Akerson stressed that the solution will likely require a mix of alternatives that won't all come immediately to market, cautioning that, ""Now we know that U.S. energy security won't come from a one-off moonshot."