The cars shown above look perfectly normal, but they run on both compressed natural gas and regular, good ol' fashioned gasoline. They feature CNG tanks tucked away in the trunk -- you know, where spare tires used to go, before they went the way of the dodo. Out of sight, out of mind, alongside their untouched factory gas tanks. The CNG tanks permit an average of 40 to 80 extra miles of range.
This is a marked contrast from cars powered exclusively by compressed natural gas. Those have been around for a while but mostly find their way into fleets, which favor CNG's stable long-term prices and can provide a dedicated filling location. Just a handful of consumer-friendly cars rely on dedicated natural gas; the Honda Civic is among the rare few. Why? CNG cars have less range compared to a similar gasoline vehicle, refueling stations are few and far between, and CNG tanks take up a lot of room.
Sound familiar, EV fans?
Carlab thought so. Which is why the small automotive consulting firm based in Orange County is testing the waters -- on behalf of organizations like America's Natural Gas Alliance -- for a half-CNG, half-gasoline-powered car. The project bases its bi-fuel model on plug-in hybrids. Along with another company called LandiRenzo, their vision of the future sees consumers buying their own natural gas compressors, then filling the CNG tanks in their Hyundai Sonatas or GMC Acadias for pennies on the dollar. The cars would run on both gasoline and natural gas, thereby increasing range and saving a little bit of gasoline -- rather like a hybrid, only with natural gas instead of battery packs.
The CNG tank can hold approximately 3-4 gallons. The 40-80 mile CNG range, says Carlab, is about a day's worth of driving. Depending on ECU programming, the car can run on natural gas during low RPM operation, at higher RPMs, or a blend of the two.
Including minor electrical use for the home-based CNG compressor -- about 2 kilowatt-hours' worth per month -- Carlab estimates that the cost of CNG will be 80 cents per gallon. Multiply that by 3 gallons, and daily driving for 30 days, and the intrepid CNG consumer is looking at 72 dollars per month -- about the cost of a tank and a half of gas. If kept within that 40-80 mile range, the consumer might not pay for gasoline for a long time.
We drove a 2012 Ford Mustang GT that had a CNG conversion performed by Carlab. The Mustang uses a Ford-specific Bi-Fuel Controller and CNG port injection, and sports a CNG range of 55 miles. During our loop around LAX it had an unexplained shudder at around 3,000 rpm when it switched over to gasoline, said Charlie A. Riedl of Chesapeake Energy. "It's gasoline on demand," he said; switching over under acceleration or higher speeds. Other than that, there were no other quirks: a center-mounted gauge depicting CNG tank levels looked factory-integrated -- the sort of OEM expertise Carlab hopes to attain.
Carlab is eager to point out that the time it took for a CNG-equipped car to earn back its conversion cost would be a mere 2.2 years -- a payback faster than that of the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. This cost doesn't include the price of a home natural gas compressor, much like how electric-vehicle costs from manufacturers rarely include the cost of a 220-volt charging system, said Carlab
Here's the best-case scenario for such a payback to happen. GE builds a home gas compressor for $500, its targeted price range. (The last available home compressor was Phill, which carried an early-adopter cost of $4,500. The company went bankrupt three years ago but is back on the market.) This is subsidized through clever federal tax programs. Six major OEMs jump on CNG and immediately start peddling the system in the highest-selling segments. The CNG system is a $2,900 factory option. Gas is an average of $3.53 a gallon. Per Carlab's predictions, 16.5 percent of new car buyers pick the CNG option -- as part of the 61 percent of Americans who have natural gas in their homes. For the 4 million cars sold in the large CUV, entry luxury CUV, sports coupe and midsize sedan classes, this represents a paltry number -- just 85,000 vehicles.
That's the best possible outcome. Truth is, Carlab doesn't know when this technology will be readily available -- the company is in talks with OEMs at the moment, but declined to say which ones. CAFE regulations would also need to change, and favor natural gas, said Mike Dovorany, Carlab's manager of product strategy. It was a sentiment undoubtedly shared by those in the presentation room of the Southern California Gas Company, surrounded by advocates from America's Natural Gas Alliance.
"Natural gas isn't treated fairly," Dovorany said.
Natural gas could make for interesting bedfellows in the automotive world -- issues of how we obtain that gas aside, natural gas is still among our largest natural resources. At the moment, the odds are stacked against the mainstreaming of CNG cars -- we're talking an entirely new refueling infrastructure and expensive startup costs at home. But by pushing gasoline alongside CNG as a bi-fuel, Carlab is dipping into the waters of natural-gas vehicles and thereby eliminating most of the compromises. And with consumers tapping into the natural gas they already use for their homes, they will most likely need less gasoline -- or perhaps none at all.
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