Ever since the introduction of the Tesla Roadster in 2008, compressed natural gas (CNG) has taken a back seat as an alternative fuel in the U.S. retail automotive market. Despite heavily financed advocacy campaigns, the technology has suffered from a lack of model availability, infrastructure, and public interest. Recent announcements from both domestic and foreign automakers , though, may be placing the alternative fuel back in the spotlight alongside electricity.
General Motors, Chrylser, and Ford all announced in early March that by the end of 2012, CNG versions of the OEMs’ pickup trucks will be available for the U.S. retail market directly from their dealers. The “Big Three” used to sell CNG vehicles retail in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but cheap gas and a lack of infrastructure made the more expensive CNG models less desirable. Thus the CNG models have been relegated to the conversion aftermarket with other eco-friendly alternative fueled vehicles such as biodiesel and EVs. Ford was the first of the Big Three back into the CNG market, offering packages preparing engines for CNG conversions in 2009.
One auto-manufacturer, Honda, has consistently maintained a CNG light duty vehicle on the U.S. market: the Civic GX. The GX has been a perpetual winner of the “Green Car of the Year” award, but is only available in four states. Though sales of the Civic GX in the U.S. have not been spectacular (2009 sales numbered less than 2,000), Honda announced in late 2011 it was expanding its sales territory to 38 states while simultaneously installing CNG refueling stations at its dealerships – essentially creating its market.
The trend certainly has much to do with the rising price of gasoline and the more consistent price of CNG (see below), as well as the slowly growing infrastructure (there are now 449 publicly accessible stations). Though the increased interest from OEMs is encouraging, the trend has not yet translated to actual sales. This is in large part because conventional internal combustion engines are becoming more efficient, hybrid mpg ratings are topping 50 miles, and plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are finally starting to hit the market. All these competing technologies also rely on an infrastructure that is quickly becoming, or already, easily accessible. This fact is troubling for Honda, because it means that a) the GX faces stiff competition, and b) it doesn’t have the public infrastructure to make “range anxiety” irrelevant. For GM, Chrysler, and Ford, however, the issues of competition and range anxiety are less concerning.
The big three have taken a markedly different approach. The first difference being that, instead of competing in a market saturated with small Japanese hybrids, plug-ins, and European clean diesels; Detroit is sticking to markets it knows well, offering a fuel efficient “enabler” to a vehicle segment desired by fleet purchasers and prominently regarded as gas guzzling. Second, and most important: many of the CNG pickup trucks are dual Fuel, which means they will have tanks for both gasoline and CNG, and can switch between the fuels with ease. Ford and GM models will boast a range of more than 600 miles on combined tanks. Dodge’s model has a much smaller gasoline tank, and therefore combined range is placed around 360 miles. The dual fuel system will therefore give drivers the opportunity to both reduce mileage costs and be “greener” without the concerns of range anxiety.
Dual fuel CNG technology is not necessarily “new” to the world, as Fiat first introduced the systems in 2008 to South American markets. The system, however, has never been directly available from U.S. dealerships. In the battle for the CNG vehicle market share, Detroit’s prospects look good.