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General Motors Looking to the Future with Natural Gas

Wednesday - 12/5/2012, 1:20pm  ET

There are doubts about the future viability of natural gas, based mainly on its price. However, if natural gas is what everyone uses in their cars the price will not be that cheap. I like natural gas, because there is lot of it in the United States, and if natural gas cars and trucks can get anchored here in the US I expect it to spread .

I think natural gas will be important to the automotive industry in some form. Even if a conversion to a fully natural gas economy was going to occur, both natural gas and oil will be used simultaneously for some time. Pickups using natural gas are the current interesting development, though there is talk of upgrading trucks. General Motors announced bi-fuel pickups. These vehicles can travel 650 miles before needing to refuel. The point of the vehicle is that they provide great range while keeping costs under control. The savings and low emissions are the main attractions. As companies decide to go green, natural gas would be a suitable choice.

As more natural gas refueling stations come online, GM's pickups should see more success. The same should go for Ford's natural gas pickup, because as fueling becomes easier these vehicles should be more attractive. That might seem logical, but it's not inevitable. It is a test, because the argument always goes that natural gas vehicles will not catch on without having the refueling stations. Also, the refueling stations will not be built without having vehicles to service. This is one of those chicken and egg issues that requires a blind commitment, probably via government, to break the stalemate.

We have finally come to a point where building stations has taken on its own momentum, and if natural gas vehicles still cannot make headway then it does not bode well. If the price of the vehicles is too high, then those have to come down. If it is a cultural issue, because people just love their crude oil based fuel products, then it will take some deals or incentives. Allowing hybrids with one person in a carpool lane in California was one such incentive.

Ford's partner for those natural gas engines is Westport Innovations , which is a company that I keep coming back to. I was under the assumption that these big automotive companies would make their natural gas engines in-house, but I was mistaken. Even if they have their own programs in the works, Westport creeps in all the time. GM is also making agreements with Westport for light-duty vehicles, which include pickups. Westport is really making some impressive progress, and any good news for those GM and Ford pickups will be great news for Westport. Its technology is solid, but just needs natural gas to have validity and mass appeal.

Unfortunately, one experimental line of trucks is not going to revolutionize GM. I do like where the company's head is at, though. Natural gas vehicles are not a new breakthrough; the technology is decades old, though the current technology is much better. Back in 2008, before natural gas had as much interest as it does now, Toyota had a natural gas Prius. That was just a concept car, and there has been no progress made on that front. Even the website references the 2008 concept car. Toyota seems more interested in its plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Fuel cells are my futuristic fuel of choice, but I think those will take a long time to catch on. It is worth keeping an eye on the company, though. Toyota really took the initiative with the Prius, but now it looks like they want to sit back and watch the natural gas saga unfold before jumping in.

Honda is the only company selling a natural gas passenger vehicle with its Civic Natural Gas. The price is a bit steep, with the 2013 natural gas Civic almost $6,000 more than the standard version. Honda is also giving out $3,000 worth of refueling credit. Remember all those “studies” about how long it would take for a hybrid to pay for its own price hike through fuel savings? I am sure they will proliferate as natural gas becomes more popular. However, right now the Civic is the only choice out there, and the price of filling a tank of natural gas is not widespread. That keeps it out of public consciousness.

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