The Truth About Cars » Natural Gas The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 27 Jul 2014 14:03:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Natural Gas President Obama Promises Tougher Truck MPG Standards, More Renewables Thu, 30 Jan 2014 16:35:58 +0000 CNG Pump + Truck Deluxe Combo With Fries

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address was relevant to auto industry types for more than just the hosting of GM CEO Mary Barra, as President Obama also called fortougher fuel economy standards for heavy duty trucks, as well as increased exploration of natural gas as an alternative fuel.

President Obama believes the fuel source, if “extracted safely,” could serve as a bridge between traditional fossil fuels and alternative energy, powering the United States economy with less carbon pollution deemed responsible for climate change. His aim is to cut the traditional red tape to help states build fuel stations, in turn helping Americans into CNG vehicles while also shaking off the ball and chain of foreign oil.

Speaking of greener vehicles, Obama also focused some attention on trucks. In the next few months, the President plans to work with manufacturers and regulators to establish standards for the big rigs hauling goods across America; light trucks are already covered by the 2025 CAFE target of 54.5 mpg. Natural gas has often been cited as a breakthrough fuel for long haul trucking as well.

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Chevrolet To Offer CNG-Powered Impala Thu, 17 Oct 2013 13:00:20 +0000 cngimpala

Looking to take advantage of the natural gas boom currently occurring in America, Chevrolet will market a bi-fuel version of its Impala sedan starting next year.

With the ability to run on either gasoline or CNG, the Impala will be offered primarily to fleet customers starting in the summer of 2014. The CNG Impala will be offered as a 2015 model, with Chevrolet only expecting to move 750 to 1,000 units. The car will have a second tank for CNG in the trunk and should offer a combined range of 500 miles. GM CEO Dan Akerson was vague about the price premium for the car, suggesting it could be at least “a couple thousand” dollars. Other vehicles, like the Honda Civic and Ford F-150, carry premiums ranging from $3,000 to $7,500 for the CNG option.

Other auto makers such as Chrysler and Volkswagen have expressed interest in CNG. Chrysler offers a CNG powered Ram 2500 pickup, but lack of demand, as well as infrastructure, have been cited as potential stumbling blocks.

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Obama Proposes $2-Billion Fund For Alternative Fuel Vehicles, No Mention Of Hydrogen Fri, 15 Mar 2013 22:07:53 +0000

“The only way to break this cycle of spiking gas prices — the only way to break that cycle for good — is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks, off oil,”

So said President Obama during a speech in Illinois, where he outlined a plan to provide $200 million a year for 10 years to a fund that would promote the development of alternative fuel vehicles. The funds would be provided by royalties from oil drilling on the Out Continental Shelf.

One notable omission from his remarks was the absence of any mention of hydrogen vehicles. Using his noted flair for rhetoric, Obama laid out his vision petroleum-free future while ignoring the fact that multiple OEMs are gearing up for a big push into fuel-cell technology

We can support scientists who are designing new engines that are more energy efficient; support scientists that are developing cheaper batteries that can go farther on a single charge; support scientists and engineers that are devising new ways to fuel our cars and trucks with new sources of clean energy — like advanced biofuels and natural gas — so drivers can one day go coast to coast without using a drop of oil.

One insider suggested that the lack of love for hydrogen has been a result of “not invented here syndrome” that is a hold over of the Bush 43 administration. While Dubya was fond of hydrogen as an alternative fuel, Obama and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu are said to be unfriendly, bordering on hostile, to the idea of hydrogen fuel cells. Unfortunately, many feel that a government partnership with the private sector will be the key to a hydrogen infrastructure breakthrough – but those parties feel that this is more likely than a cost effective, right-sized battery pack capable for a 500 mile range.


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Eaton, GE Working On Affordable CNG Home Refueling Stations Mon, 23 Jul 2012 14:49:49 +0000

America may be the world’s up-and-c0ming natural gas producer, but if you have a car powered by CNG, good luck finding a station. CNG terminals are thin on the ground in certain parts of the country, and half of them are closed to the public.

While Honda was formerly in partnership with a home refueling station company, the history of the unit, known as the “Phill” has been rocky, and the system has largely disappeared from the spotlight.

Just-Auto is reporting that the Phill won’t be the sole contender for much longer – Eaton, a major automotive supplier, is apparently working on a lower-cost home refueling station - with a target price of around $500 (versus $4,500 for the Phill).

General Electric is also getting into the act, with their own low-cost charger program and a promising new technology, known as CNG In A Box, which

takes natural gas from a pipeline and compresses it on-site at an industrial location or at a traditional automotive refilling station to then turns it into CNG, making it faster, easier and less expensive for users to fuel up natural gas vehicles.

Natural gas prices may be the big variable here. Prices can’t stay at record lows forever, but as long as they stay low enough to make it a viable fueling option, expect to see the disciples of T. Boone Pickens making a big push. Eaton’s own system isn’t expected to come out until 2015 – who knows what could happen in three years?

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Ask An Engineer: Natural Gas For Dummies Wed, 27 Jun 2012 15:49:48 +0000

Westport Innovations has just signed a second deal with General Motors to produce light duty natural gas engines, and it’s probably not the last time we’ll be seeing these kind of partnerships forming. Natural gas vehicles have been explored previously on TTAC, but the technology hasn’t been fully explored in-depth, aside from some well-informed comments in various articles.

As a fuel for vehicles (light duty as well as commercial vehicles), natural gas has a number of attributes which fit well with our current political narratives and economic realities

  1. Natural gas is 30-50% cheaper than diesel per unit of energy
  2. Abundant domestic supply
  3. Environmental benefits (lower GHG and tailpipe emissions)
  4. Significant reduction in CO2, CO, UHC, NOx, SOx and PM emissions versus conventional gasoline and diesel engines.

Natural gas can be used across the full spectrum of spark ignition (gasoline type) and compression ignition (diesel type) engines with the appropriate enabling technologies. While spark ignition natural gas engines have been available for quite some time (such as the NG powered Honda Civic), compression ignition natural gas engines have required further development. The difficulty is that while natural gas burns cleanly, it is less likely to auto-ignite (octane rating of 120-130), unlike diesel, which has a lower octane number. This quality of natural gas is advantageous for a spark ignition engine as it prevents detonation and allows for higher compression ratios, but makes it detrimental for a compression ignition engine.

Westport has devised a dual-fuel direct injection system to enable natural gas substitution in a compression ignition engine. The fuel injector at the heart of this system is able to inject both liquid diesel and gaseous natural gas in precisely metered quantities directly into the cylinder. In this system, the diesel fuel ignites as a result of compression as it would in a regular diesel engine. The combusting diesel fuel initiates the natural gas combustion. 93-95% diesel substitution is achievable according to public documentation. This innovation is directed at the heavy-duty diesel market which includes everything from transport trucks to locomotives.

One of the main criticisms is the lack of infrastructure surrounding natural gas. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is easier to store and transport than liquefied natural gas (LNG) so it is the optimal choice for light duty applications. LNG has a greater volumetric energy density but is more expensive to store, transport and ultimately use in a vehicle as it must be kept cold and pressurized to remain a liquid.

Vehicles like the Civic Natural Gas have a reduced range relative to a gasoline Civic, but commercial vehicles, like transport trucks, are emerging as one of the prime candidates for natural gas engines. Large transport trucks are a significant contributor to green house gas emissions and are on the road enough to make the conversion cost effective – though LNG, rather than CNG, would be the fuel of choice. A relatively small number of LNG filling stations placed along major transport corridors could meet their fueling needs and present a great way to thoroughly evaluate the technology. Less complex CNG stations could be added if the decision was made to target light duty vehicles.

Going “all in” on CNG/LNG is a little premature at this point, but the adoption of natural gas as a transport fuel is a good first step in reducing our emissions while other alternative technologies reach maturity. More in-depth discussion is always welcome in the comments.

“Ask an Engineer” is hosted by Andrew Bell, a mechanical engineer and car enthusiast. Andrew has his MASc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto, and has worked on Formula SAE teams, as well as alternative fuel technologies in Denmark and Canada. Andrew’s column will explore engineering topics in the most accessible manner possible.

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Review: 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas Wed, 23 May 2012 16:51:09 +0000

Since 1998 Honda has been quietly producing one of the cleanest vehicles in America. In 2001 the EPA called its engine “the cleanest burning internal combustion engine in the world.” No, it’s not a hybrid, it’s Honda’s Civic Natural Gas (formerly known as the Civic GX). Until now, the Civic Natural Gas has only been available for retail sale in a handful of states like California and New York. For 2012, Honda expanded sales to 37 states and lent us one for a week.

As Honda dropped off the CNG Civic one bright Tuesday morning, I realized I had absolutely no idea what I had gotten myself into. Like most of the motoring public, I didn’t know much about CNG and it was only when the compact sedan arrived that I asked: “where do I fill this thing up?” Once I found a CNG station, I realized I had no idea how to fill it up either. If you’re dying to know, check out our video below.

Click here to view the embedded video.


The all-new 9th generation exterior is instantly recognizable as a Civic. While there are virtually no carryover parts from 2011, the changes are subtle enough to be a refresh. Unlike the Civic Hybrid, which gains a few blue-tinted trim bits and some LED brake lights to set it apart from the rabble, the only way to identify the Civic Natural Gas is by the legally required blue diamond CNG logo on the trunk lid. (The sticker is supposed to help emergency responders know that high-pressure gas lurks within.) Limited production means limited options, and you can get your Civic Natural gas in any color you want so long as its light grey, dark grey, periwinkle or white.


The Civic Natural Gas started out  in 1998 as a cleaner alternative for the meter maids parking enforcement specialists in Los Angeles. Since then, the majority of gaseous sales have gone to fleet customers looking for lower operating costs, a green image and a vehicle that uses the same fueling infrastructure as their vans and buses. Honda’s focus on fleet customers (and their needs) is obvious by the lack of options found on Honda’s retail-focused models. The interior is only available in one color scheme, with cloth seats and only one option: Honda’s touchscreen nav system. You won’t find leather seats, automatic climate control, heated seats, or an up-level speaker package at any price.



Under the hood beats the biggest change: a re-worked 1.8L engine. This is one of the few engines in the world built specifically for CNG. Unlike conversion kits that blow gas into the air intake, the Civic uses a CNG  multi-port injection system. To compensate for the lower energy density of CNG, the compression ratio is increased from 10.6 to 12.7. Despite this, power drops from 140HP to 110HP while torque goes from 128lb-ft to 106lb-ft. Honda toyed with a CVT in the past, but for 2012, the 5-speed automatic from the regular Civic makes a cameo. I’m probably the only car guy to wish the CVT from the hybrid was under the hood as it would have improved the fuel economy

According to the EPA, this engine produces 70-90% lower smog forming emissions, 20-30% lower CO2 and virtually no evaporative emissions when compared to a regular Civic. It’s smog numbers and CO2 numbers are lower than VW’s most efficient clean diesel and it delivers considerably lower NOx and particulate emissions when compared to clean diesels. A side benefit of CNG engines is improved spark plug and oil life as there are fewer impurities to foul either one.



Sound too good to be true? There are a few problems. First off, natural gas must be stored in a pressure cylinder. By their design, these cylinders are large, need to be placed somewhere safe, and can’t be shaped like your typical gas tank. This means the cylinder is in the trunk and cargo space gets cut in half from 12.5 cubic feet to 6.1. As you can see below, it is still possible to fit two carry-on sized roller bags and some small hand luggage in the trunk, but larger items like large strollers might not fit.


About CNG

According to the EPA, CNG is a plentiful and as a result, 87% of the natural gas consumed in the United States in 2011 was produced domestically. The rest came from Canada and Mexico. If you are simply seeking to reduce this country’s dependence on foreign energy without changing your lifestyle, CNG is one of your better options. While there are about 120,000 CNG powered vehicles in the United States, most of them are buses. You want something other than a cargo or people hauler, the Civic is the only factory built CNG vehicle around.

Since virtually all natural gas consumed in America comes from underground deposits created by ancient decaying matter, it’s not a renewable resource in its current form. Unlike gasoline, diesel and liquid propane, natural gas isn’t sold by the gallon. Instead, it is served up by the Gasoline Gallon Equivalent or GGE. At 3,600psi this equates to 0.51 cubic feet of gas. In California we averaged $2.19 per GGE while gasoline was around $4.27 a gallon.


Finding CNG can be tricky as there are only 1,000 stations in the US, and half of them are closed to the public. Approximately 250 public stations are available in California with New York and Utah coming in second and third at 101 and 84 respectively. Operating your CNG Civic in a state like Texas could be tricky, with both long driving distances and only 36 stations to fill up at. Most stations are located near airports and industrial areas, so if your commute takes you near these locations it’s an easy sell. While there are home refueling stations available, Honda does not recommend them as they may not sufficiently dry the gas and allow moisture to build up in the tank. The home unit costs $4,900 without installation and is only good for 3,000 GGE of CNG. Although not recommended, it is much cheaper to fill up at home, with an estimated cost per GGE of $1.43 in California. While the CNG station nearest to my home is 20 miles away, there are several on the way to my office and one only 0.2 miles from my office, making commuter-car use a real option for me.



Honda’s Civic Natural Gas carries a mid-range feature set despite its price tag. This means that although a nav system is available (the only option on the CNG), upgraded speakers are not. The sound quality is mediocre with dull highs and muddy lows. Remember, this is a fleet-oriented vehicle. The only real reason to get the factory nav system is that it is preloaded with a CNG station database which can be handy if you don’t have a smartphone. If you have a smartphone, stick with the base radio and get a CNG finder app.



Out on the road the Civic Natural Gas drives just like a regular Civic, with less power. From a standstill, 60 arrives in 10.9 seconds, about 2 seconds slower than a regular Civic, but only 3/4 of a second behind the hybrid. When it comes to road holding, the CNG performs essentially the same as a regular Civic LX sedan, since Honda chose not to use low rolling resistance rubber on the CNG like they did on the hybrid.


You should know that essentially all the tax credits for CNG vehicles have evaporated. This means your CNG Civic is a whopping $6,710 more than a comparably equipped Civic LX and even $2,105 more than a Civic Hybrid. Based on current fuel costs in northern California, it would take 5.5 years for the CNG to break even with the Hybrid and 7.5 with the Civic LX. The Civic Natural Gas has a trump card to play in California: Solo carpool usage. If you live on the left coast as I do, and “enjoy” a “healthy” commute, the CNG may just be the best investment you could make in your family. On my daily commute, being able to drive in the carpool lane saved me 25-35 minutes of commute time per day. That adds up to 125 hours less commuting a year, or 5.2 days less time in a car on my commute. The scarcity of CNG filling stations will continue to ensure Civic Natural Gas sales remain low. However, for those that live near CNG infrastructure, the Civic Natural gas makes an interesting proposition. While it will take nearly a decade to justify the cost of buying one, in states like California where you can use the HOV lane, it presents quite a different reason to buy one. It also makes a compelling case against EVs, as America is the land of coal and gas power plants, the CO2 emissions from the CNG Civic are similar or lower than the Leaf depending on the state you live in.


Honda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 4.2 Seconds

0-60: 10.9 Seconds

Average fuel economy: 35.2MPG over 820 Miles


2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, side, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, side, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, side, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, rear 3/4, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, front 3/4, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, front, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, front, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Exterior, side, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), CA carpool sticker, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), CNG logo, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), refueling, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), refueling, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), refueling, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), refueling, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), CNG prices , Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, front, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, driver's side, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, dashboard , Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, dashboard , Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, steering wheel, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, steering wheel, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, HVAC controls, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Trunk /  Cargo room, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Trunk /  Cargo room, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, tachometer, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, instrument cluster, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, fuel economy, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, radio / infotainment, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, ECO button, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Interior, door switches, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Engine, 1.8L CNG, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas (Civic GX), Engine, 1.8L CNG, Photography Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 65
GM’s Pickup Truck CNG Conversion Costs $11,000 Wed, 18 Apr 2012 19:50:28 +0000

Compressed natural gas may cost the equivalent of $1.89 per gallon of gasoline, but retrofitting your GMC Sierra or Chevrolet Silverado will cost you $11,000 – and GM still think it will save you money.

According to GM, “…Customers could save $5,000 to $10,000 over a three-year period, depending on their driving habits.” How GM came to this number is a bit of a mystery, and we’re doing some digging to try and figure it out – because it’s a conversion, there is no EPA rating on it and data is difficult to find.

What we did notice was this little tidbit

Businesses are looking for ways to control their costs while reducing vehicle emissions and becoming less dependent on fluctuating gas prices. The low cost of ownership makes these vehicles a realistic solution,” 

$11,000 is a lot of cash for a business to tie up in one truck. In the absence of any data on how many miles it would take to break even (as well as the gas price number used to come up with it), it appears that GM is hoping to sway buyers with the prospect of unstable or rising fuel prices in the future. Emissions are almost certainly a secondary concern. It’s a wonder that GM didn’t promote the fact that CNG can legitimately claim to be a domestically sourced form of clean energy, seeing as they (barely) did back in March.

We contacted GM to try and get more information on the CNG conversion, and more specifically, how they came to their savings figures. Please leave all accusations of anti-GM bias, skulduggery and wrongdoing in the comments section.

EDIT: General Motors says that they calculated the savings based on a truck driving 24,000 miles a year, with gas prices at $4 per gallon and a CNG gallon equivalent of $2. GM’s Mike Jones, Product Manager for Fleet and Commercial Operations, thinks that there will continue to be “…a pretty significant price separation…” between gasoline and CNG.

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Hertz To Rent CNG Vehicles, Pilot Program Begins In May Thu, 12 Apr 2012 12:09:02 +0000  

If you’re traveling to Oklahoma City any time soon, Herz will give you the option of renting a Honda Civic or GMC Yukon that runs on Compressed Natural Gas.

Renters will be able to select from one of eight Honda Civics or two GMC Yukons that use CNG. The vehicles will have a Hertz Neverlost GPS System on-board that will assist with locating a CNG refueling station.

Oklahoma may be “flyover country” for coastal greenie types, but OKC is home to big natural gas producers, including Chesapeake Energy Corporation. The state also has 70 CNG stations that are already in use or about to come online. Launching a pilot project here is akin to launching an all-E85 fleet in Iowa. Hertz is, of course, playing up both the green angle and the fact that CNG is a domestically produced fuel.

Hertz already rents CNG vehicles in Italy and the UK, and CNG cars can be rented at a Hertz outlet at Oklahoma State University, but this marks the first time that the company has offered CNG cars at an airport location.

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Blind Spot: Obama No Longer Dreams Of Electric Cars Tue, 13 Mar 2012 00:00:31 +0000

“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by a line from the teacher explaining how the miscreant in question was failing to live up to expectations. True to form, the White House’s just-released “One Year Progress Report” [PDF] on President Obama’s “Blueprint For A Secure Energy Agenda” includes some devastating evidence of abject failure. But unlike my post-progress report conversations with the parental stakeholders, Obama has a lot more to explain to voters than a simple “insufficient homework turned in.”

Just over a year ago,  in his 2011 State Of The Union, President Obama unveiled plan to stimulate “One Million Electric Vehicles By 2015,” arguing that

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015″

Shortly thereafter, his Department of Energy released a report that touted wildly-optimistic production goals for several pure-electric cars, concluding that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity. Major vehicle manufacturers have announced (or been the subject of media reports) that indicate a cumulative electric drive vehicle manufacturing capacity of over 1.2 million vehicles through 2015.

Strong incentives, research and development, and assistance in establishing manufacturing and infrastructure is underway or planned. These activities directly support consumer demand of these technologies, and mitigate some of the uncertainty associated with the large-scale adoption of electric drive vehicles.

That argument became conclusively moot this year, when production of the Chevrolet Volt was stopped for the third time in its short lifetime, as unwanted cars piled up on dealer lots. Though the Volt has been defined as a symbol of GM’s bailout, it is even more politically significant as a component of Obama’s bold million-plugin plan. In last year’s report, the Department of Energy estimated that 120,000 Volts would be put on the road in the US this year, when the Volt hs actually only just broke 1,000 units sold per month for the first time in February. That 90% discrepancy between expectation and reality is crucial to Obama’s pledge, as the “1.2m production capacity through 2015″ that the DOE took for granted included some 505,000 Volts (at 120k/year from 2012-2015). With the Volt selling at 10% of DOE estimates, the entire goal falls apart (the next-closest vehicle, Nissan’s Leaf, isn’t estimated to hit 100,000 units per year until 2014).

Having seen the Volt’s underperformance coming, I’ve been wondering when the Obama Administration would recognize reality and admit that its goal was out of reach. But this being politics, you can’t just hand ammunition to your opponents. Admissions of failure must be couched in obfuscation and swaddled in unrelated good news. Which brings us to the just-released “Progress Report,” which is something like the polar opposite of landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with “Mission Accomplished” banners.

A sunny, upbeat document, the “Progress Report” introduces itself with wide-eyed optimism:

On the one-year anniversary of your Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, which outlined your goals for American energy, we wanted to present a report on the significant progress we have made. During the last year alone, we established new incentives to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production; proposed the toughest fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in history; provided millions of Americans with efficient and affordable transportation choices; launched new programs to improve energy efficiency in our homes, buildings, public transit, aviation and roadway systems; and took unprecedented steps to make the United States a leader in the clean energy

But if we skip ahead to the section regarding EVs, we find that all the sugary good news is just helping mask the rank scent of failure. So, how does a sitting president admit failure? It’s as easy as writing

“By 2015, the United States will be able to produce enough batteries and components to support one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.”

Notice the key difference: then, the argument was that government action would put a million EVs on the road, now the argument is that the infrastructure will be in place to meet the goal. Oh, and in case you’re a fellow ADD-sufferer, remember that the DOE determined just one year ago that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity.

In essence this report repeats the exact same thing. The difference is simply that a year ago, the President could pretend that the market would simply soak up whatever number of EVs the car companies (most of whom had received some form of government support) said they would build. Now even the most hardened partisan can’t maintain such obvious self-delusion, as the demand for EVs (the Volt in particular) has been proven to be well below expectations. This failure is made explicit in the Progress Report, which notes that

in March 2012, the President launched a clean energy grand challenge to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles for the average American family within a decade.

In short, the message has gone from “thanks to government intervention, the future is now” to “thanks to government intervention, the future might be here in a decade.” Or, to quote a certain former presidential candidate, “whoops!”

Some might argue that this is a textbook example of government wasting money trying to affect the market, and a clear sign that the market is going to do what it wants regardless of our publicly-funded exercises in futility. Instead, President Obama is “doubling down” by requesting a billion dollars be spent on a “Community Deployment” scheme aimed at boosting demand for “advanced technology vehicles” through local partnerships, and tax credits for advanced technology vehicles be bumped to a maximum of $10,000. To be fair, the retreat from EVs is reflected in the new “technology neutral” approach, which doesn’t limit subsidies to EVs but

allow[s] communities to determine if electrification, natural gas, or biofuels would be the best fit.

But the proposed changes to the consumer tax credit [PDF] have some very vague and confusing stipulations, namely that

(1) the vehicle operates primarily on an alternative to petroleum; (2) as of the January 1, 2012, there are few vehicles in operation in the U.S. using the same technology as such vehicle.

The vagueness of those rules makes them hard to interpret, but it seems that clause (1) excludes high-efficiency, small battery plug-ins like the Prius Plug-In while clause (2) could well exclude natural gas vehicles (there were well over 100k NGVs on the road as of 2010). In which case, this policy is merely a continuation of the attempt to create a market for EVs (and since we’re talking disappointing technologies, possibly hydrogen cars). The community deployment scheme seems more technologically neutral, but is flawed in the extent that it assumes that local solutions will be more broadly applicable. Besides, most local governments with strong “green car” demand potential are already incentivizing public EV charging stations and the like. And don’t get me started about the fact that the government is even pretending that biofuels are a serious solution to either environmental or energy security concerns.

As gas prices go up, we could see EV and plug-in sales improve, but it’s clear that there won’t be one million EVs on American roads by 2015. Especially with policy appearing to shift towards a more “technology neutral” mode, there is a very real threat that the huge oversupply of natural gas could create a short term market for NGVs that could doom EVs for another decade or more. If the goal of Obama’s energy policy were to improve energy independence or help the efficient use of resources, this would be good news as it’s much easier and cheaper to build (and therefore, subsidize) NGVs than EVs (even without considering the low cost of natural gas itself). Unfortunately, we have already made a significant national investment in EV/battery technology, which satisfies yet another political constituency: environmentalists.

Without clearly communicated goals, government policies will never gain the credibility with markets they need to impact. And given President Obama’s track record so far, it’s clear  he needs to more clearly admit that his EV initiative has failed and express a clear set of goals for America’s transportation and energy sectors. Unfortunately, the fact that that he’s chosen to admit that the EV dream is over in such an oblique manner indicates that expecting such forthrightness would seem more than a little naive. All of which simply confirms that this issue, like so many others facing the nation, is no longer a question of policy, but of politics.

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Ford Bets On Ecoboost, Chrysler And GM On Natural Gas For Pickups Mon, 12 Mar 2012 20:47:26 +0000

While both General Motors and Chrysler are putting their money on Compressed Natural Gas options for their pickup-truck lineups, Ford is going with pretty much everything but CNG as it examines alternative fuel strategies for future vehicles – and for now, the 3.5L Ecoboost V6 will be the standard bearer for light duty versions of the Ford F-Series.

Automotive News spoke with Ford product development boss Raj Nair, who told the outlet

“Relative to what we’re achieving with EcoBoost and our electrification strategy in the U.S., what we’re achieving with the diesel strategy here in Europe and elsewhere, those are more solid bets to put really solid investments in for mainstream offerings,” 

Nair also cited CNG’s lack of infrastructure as another reason to avoid CNG. But Chrysler’s Ram Tradesman pickup will come in a CNG powered variant, while GM will offer a Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra with a 6.0L V8 that can switch between CNG and regular gasoline.

Buried in the article is a quote from Nair stating that Ford will

“…do conversions for pickups that would allow them to run on natural gas, Nair said. The market for trucks using the technology will be “very dependent on what the regulatory environment is going to be.”

So, Ford is still hedging their bets, and looking to see if this “Made in America” fuel will get the kind of economic incentives that EVs and plug-ins  are privy to. Chrysler and GM will join Honda as the big purveyors of CNG powered cars in the United States – Honda sells the Civic GX in small volumes.

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Honda Tells Dealers: Build CNG Fueling Stations, And They Will Come Fri, 09 Mar 2012 19:05:44 +0000

This is the Honda Civic GX, a vehicle that runs on propane and propane accessories compressed natural gas. Despite the Civic GX’s title as one of America’s “Greenest Vehicles“, the Civic GX is pricey, and CNG refueling stations are few and far between – apparently there are only 830 in the entire United States, with not all of them open to the public. Honda wants to change that – but it wants dealers to bear the costs, monetary and otherwise, of building new fueling outlets.

Honda’s Steve Center, in charge of environmental business development, wants to put CNG fueling stations in at least two dealerships in California this year. Center told Bloomberg

“If the dealer had a fueling station, it would really reduce some of that concern for the customer,” Center said at Honda’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California. “It’s not our place to create infrastructure, but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation and we’re going to have to nurse that egg along.”

So, it’s not Honda’s place to build infrastructure - but the dealers can go ahead and do it. The costs of the project weren’t disclosed, but off the bat there appears to be some value in installing these stations; getting customers to keep coming back to the dealer can help them build relationships, sell aftermarket parts, servicing other vehicles and build good will among customers.

Honda’s pitch appears to be in the beginning stages, but one can guess how they’re going to market the CNG Civic; great fuel economy, from a clean, domestic energy source that’s also free from serious range anxiety (the Civic GX gets about 225-250 miles per tank). In addition to the dealer filling stations, there are home units available too – but they take about 8-10 hours to fill the car up (since the gas isn’t pressurized like commercial stations) and cost about $3,400 for the unit alone.

The days of Jim Cardiges and kickbacks are long over, but there’s no reason to think that there may be positive incentives to signing on with the program. Maybe there will be a better allocation of cars. Maybe warranty claims would get paid quicker. Maybe co-op advertising campaigns would get a bigger share of their costs picked up by Honda. For now, this looks like a test program, and Honda will be helping dealers get financing, incentives and approval from local governments. Yesterday’s initial article on natural gas vehicles (yes, including LPG/Propane as well as CNG vehicles) had great commentary from the B&B, particularly on the drawbacks of natural gas vehicles.  I’m confident that the increasing price of gas along with the eminently marketable angle of a domestic clean energy source means we’ll be hearing a lot more about natural gas in light vehicles, regardless of the fuel’s merits.

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Will Natural Gas Prevent Us From Reaching A Better Place? Thu, 08 Mar 2012 16:56:18 +0000

A brief piece in the Wall Street Journal’s “Dealbook” discussed the potential of natural gas powered vehicles, largely as a way to stop falling prices for natural gas.

One hope for many natural gas producers reeling from collapsing prices is wider adoption of natural-gas-powered cars.

The biggest hurdle so far: lack of infrastructure to refuel them.

But Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy, says if 10% of passenger cars were powered by natural gas, gasoline prices would fall by $1.60/gallon and gas producers would get 4 billion cubic feet/day in demand.

The global supply of natural gas is way up, thanks to shale deposits in the United States and other locales. Currently, the Honda Civic GX is the best-known CNG vehicle on sale currently. Buses, taxis and other commercial vehicles have been running on CNG for years, but Dodge is set to introduce a Ram Tradesman that can run on CNG – other work trucks have been converted to run on natural gas by their owners (at significant expense), but this looks to be one of the first OEM-engineered work trucks with this capability.

An NPR report (sponsored by a natural gas lobby group) touched on President Obama’s visit to a big rig factory, some of which were powered by natural gas. Obama proposed – you guessed it - tax incentives for alternative fuel vehicles, including natural gas. Natural gas vehicles aren’t that popular around the world, but have a certain following – Brazilian Fiat Siena taxicabs, LPG powered Volvos and the famous Panther platform Crown Vics and Town Cars that serve as taxi and livery cars in Toronto all exist, albeit in very small numbers.

Natural gas could potentially be a “black swan event” for the auto industry, a cheap, clean-burning fuel that could allow for both domestic energy independence and the continued hegemony of the internal combustion engine. Drivers wouldn’t have to worry about foreign oil, range anxiety or battery bricking.

The obvious problem is the lack of infrastructure. Natural gas filling stations are scant, to put it mildly. But there are rumblings (so far unsubstantiated – but keep watching TTAC for more info) that building filling stations, be it for hydrogen or other fuels, is easier and cheaper than trying to develop serious long-range, quick charging, sustainable and affordable battery technology. If this turns out to be true, then it suggests that electric cars will be forever relegated to “second car/commuter car” status.

A final note: Israel, home of Better Place and their battery swapping stations, is said to have enormous shale oil and gas deposits (so much for the joke about the Israelites wandering for 40 years and finding no oil). Aside from the obvious geopolitical implications, what kind of future would that leave for the Better Place program?


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Honda Launches Fit EV, But Civic GX Takes Green Car Prize Thu, 17 Nov 2011 17:59:40 +0000

Between the tsunamis, floods, and poorly-received Civic, Honda has had  a rough 2011. But the brand is hoping to put all that behind it by emphasizing its environmentally-friendly product portfolio, announcing a Fit EV which will be made available in California, Oregon and six east coast markets next summer. Unlike Nissan, however, Honda isn’t actually selling the electric commuter cars, but is offering them at a $399/month lease rate. And no wonder: Honda only expects 1,000 of these Fit EVs to find homes over the next three years, probably due at least in part to its north-of-$36k price point. Which may be why the natural gas-powered Civic GX just won the Green Car Of The Year award for Honda. It may not be as radical or purely “green” as a pure EV, but it can sell in volume… in fact, Wards Auto [sub] just reported that Honda is bumping production of the CNG Civic in order to catch up with demand. At a time when Honda is desperate for some good news (and nobody is losing their mind over the new CR-V), a little publicity for one of Honda’s most unique and under-marketed vehicles probably feels like manna from heaven…

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Speaking Of All Natural Gas … Sat, 02 Jul 2011 13:39:00 +0000

This is the Maxximum G-Force. It holds all kinds of world records. And it runs on all-American natural gas! Something had to be natural in this video …

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Will Your Next Car Run On Fracking Gas? Sat, 02 Jul 2011 09:31:51 +0000

For a long time, taxis, trucks, delivery vans have been on the bottle. On a bottle of CNG, or Compressed Natural Gas.  Now, “major automakers like General Motors and Chrysler are gearing up to invest in companies that make engines and parts for vehicles that run on the fuel,” says Reuters.

Actually, it doesn’t take much to make an ICE run on CNG. The biggest challenges are where to place the tank and how to get the EPA certification. A retrofitted tank takes up valuable trunk space while that gasoline tank stays empty (or filled, for bi-fuel systems popular in Europe.) Factory-built vehicles get around these challenges. CNG produces significantly less pollutants. CNG costs about half of the equivalent amount of gasoline. And most of all, says Reuters:

“The United States has more natural gas than it knows what to do with – up to 100 years of supply, experts say.”

Actually, experts said that in 2009 U.S. reserves of natural gas were estimated as 2,074 trillion cubic feet (59 trillion cubic meters). That may have been a wrong number. The CIA has a lower figure of 244 trillion cubic feet (6.9 trillion cubic meters.) Why the difference of opinion? A drilling technique called “fracking” can release huge reserves of natural gas trapped in shale rock, but that process is not without its fracking enemies.

CNG could give ye olde ICE a few years more. No wonder that GM and Chrysler are warming up to the idea. The question is: What took them so long? It’s no bleeding edge technology. The all knowing Wikipedia says that by 2009, there were 11.2 million CNG powered vehicles on the roads of this planet. They are popular in Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil and the Iran. CNG tanks are a common sight in taxis in Tokyo, Hong Kong, the limo that took me from Detroit airport to Bricktown was on the bottle.

In the U.S., there is a small cottage industry of CNG conversions. The Honda Civic GX, an ex factory CNG car that will be available to the public next year, claims a range of  225 to 250 miles on a full tank of gas. Then there are the Chinese.

It is more than likely that you could fill a CNG car at home. The U.S. sits on a massive infrastructure of natural gas pipes, fueling stoves and heaters across the nation. A home refueling appliance can compress gas into the cylinder. It costs about $3,500 uninstalled and uses 800 watts of power when running.  Without gas at home, you need a CNG filling station. They are surprisingly plenty, crossing the continent on CNG would still be a challenge.

Let’s ask the CIA what they think about CNG. The natural gas reserves of the U.S. are the sixth largest in the world, ranking between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Good.  China has less than half of the U.S. reserves. No wonder they like EVs. Tiny Qatar has roughly four times the reserves of the U.S. and eight times the reserves of China. Expect that peninsula to be liberated by pro-democracy forces before China buys it.

The kings of gas are Russia and Iran. Ooops.

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GM Signs Natural Gas Development Deal, Light Duty Prototype Possible In 18 Months Tue, 28 Jun 2011 23:25:52 +0000

Smell that? It’s the gathering scent of a new industry trend towards natural gas. Honda’s expanded its pioneering Civic GX to 50 states, Sergio Marchionne wants to replicate his Italian CNG success at Chrysler (eventually), and now GM is jumping on the bandwagon while it’s still relatively uncrowded. The Winnepeg Free Press reports that GM has signed a development deal with Vancouver, B.C.-based Westport Innovations which could see a prototype light-duty natural gas-powered engine completed “within 18 months” if preliminary study proves promising. A Westport spokesman boasts

If both parties agree to move ahead with commercialization this would be one of the first pure OEM [natural gas-powered] products

You know, except the Civic GX which has been prowling American streets since 1998. Still, with Chrysler targeting CNG commercialization no earlier than 2017, GM could have a strong head-start on a fuel technology that promises to be a viable and promising gasoline alternative, especially if the NatGas Bill [PDF] passes, expanding $7,500 plug-in tax credits to natural gas vehicles. And GM’s got a strong partner in Westport, which has heavy-duty commercial deals with Cummins and Caterpillar. With Nissan all-in on EVs and years ahead of the competition in terms of global EV production capacity, look for other competitors to hedge their alt-energy bets… and natural gas is rapidly becoming the most popular alternative.

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Chevy Beats The Gas Prices Blues In India With LPG, EV City Car Mon, 27 Jun 2011 21:21:57 +0000

Speaking of GM’s future lineup, there’s no sign in GMI’s 2013 projected lineup of the on-again-off-again Spark city car (A-Segment) that we had heard would be here now. Hell, they’ve had the cupholders ready since 2009. So what’s the Spark up to?

It’s already on sale in much of the world, but in India (where the model is known as the Beat) it’s working on improving its fuel economy beyond even its 1.2 liter gas-sipper’s already-impressive frugality. And reflecting the numerous options available for reducing gas consumption, The Hindu Business Line reports GM has built an (in-house) electric version (currently for testing only) as well as a 56 MPG (non-EPA) diesel version and a Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) version. Which explains why GM’s Mark Reuss answered very carefully when asked by the WSJ [sub] if it were possible for GM to meet the rumored 56.2 MPG CAFE standard, saying

These are tough goals; we have to evaluate this. It’s how you get there with cars and trucks [that] consumers want to buy.

Apparently 12 seconds to 60 MPH and a 100 MPH top speed is not Mr Reuss’s version of a “car that consumers want to buy.” At least at current gas prices anyway…

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MIT and International Energy Agency Explore The Promise Of Natural Gas-Powered Transportation Fri, 10 Jun 2011 23:15:59 +0000

A pair of studies, by MIT and the International Energy Agency [via GreenCarCongress] take a look at what is rapidly becoming a hot topic in the world of alt-energy transportation policy: the use of natural gas to power cars and trucks. If you’re intrigued by the car industry’s “forgotten” fuel source (and with Honda Civic GX models going on sale in 50 states and a possible $7,500 natural gas car tax credit going before congress this summer, you probably should be), hit the jump for some comprehensive information about the future of natural gas-powered transportation.

MIT’s study [PDF] is a 170-page monster which “seeks to explain the role of natural gas in a carbon-constrained economy,” and argues that the fuel’s use is likely to expand in almost all scenarios, due to low costs, abundant supplies, carbon advantages. The main shortcoming of natural gas, namely the cost of transportation and lack of fueling infrastructure, will likely be addressed by developments in natural gas liquification and will, in particular, spur increases in natural gas use in transportation applications (only about 3% of current supply goes to transportation right now).

The IEA report [PDF]is not much shorter, at 131 pages, and it carries the provocative sub-headline “Are We Entering The Golden Age Of Gas?” The IEA document is more globally-focused than the US-centric MIT report, but it comes to many of the same conclusions, namely that the best opportunities for natural gas-powered cars is in commercial fleet vehicles, freight, and public transportation. The study plots out several scenarios and projects trends in natural gas use, concluding that natural gas vehicles (NGV) could capture 10% of the global market by 2035, and that such a development would reduce oil use by 5.7m barrels per day compared to a 1.9% market share, but would offer a less dramatic improvement in carbon emissions.

Compared to the barriers faced by pure electric cars, for example, natural gas seems like a seriously underutilized energy source for cars. If carbon reduction is the top goal, it’s certainly less ideal, but for energy independence, and general reductions in oil consumption, gas has a lot to offer. Possibly most compelling to the auto industry, natural gas does not require brand-new technologies, but can be burnt using existing engines with relatively minor conversion costs. The MIT report encourages the US government to study different natural gas-derived liquid fuels (as each has its own quirks and foibles) as a precursor to any infrastructure investments needed to drive transportation-sector use of natural gas, while the IEA report sees the biggest gains in natural gas transportation in Latin America and Asia. It seems clear from the research that natural gas, along with micro-hybrids, hybrids, EVs, and possibly even fuel-cell vehicles, will be a key element of the “carbon constrained” fleets of the future.

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The Chinese Are Coming: Part One: A Tale Of Two Nobles Wed, 04 May 2011 15:00:17 +0000  

For years now the Chinese automakers have been the bête noir of the global car industry, inspiring equal parts fear and contempt in boardrooms and editorial meetings from Detroit to Stuttgart. In an industry built on scale, China’s huge population and rapid growth can not be ignored as one scans the horizon for dark horse competitors. And yet no Chinese automaker has yet been able to get even a firm toehold in the market China recently passed as the world’s largest: the United States.

Certainly many have tried, as the last decade is littered with companies who have tried to import Chinese vehicles, only to go out of business or radically rethink their strategy (think Zap for the former and Miles/CODA for the latter). Others, like BYD (or India’s Mahindra), have teased America endlessly with big promises of low costs and high efficiency, only to delay launch dates endlessly. In short, a huge gulf has emerged between overblown fears of developing world (particularly Chinese) auto imports and the ability of Chinese automakers to actually deliver anything. No wonder then, that we found what appears to be the first legitimate attempt at importing Chinese cars to the US quite by accident…

The internet is an amazing thing: on any given day you literally never know what you’re going to find. Typically when I find a story that shows promise as a TTAC post, I open a few tabs in a new window and search for words and phrases associated with that story in hopes of finding related reporting and greater context. And sometimes those searches lead to a story that’s infinitely more interesting than the original idea that lead to them.

A few days ago, for example, an Automotive News [sub] story about Wheego Electric Cars Inc caught my eye. The firm, which imports Shuanghuan Noble gliders and converts them to electric power using US suppliers, sold its first retail vehicle last Earth Day (April 22), but AN [sub]‘s piece was hardly the puff piece you might expect from such an opportunity. Instead, the industry paper reported that Wheego was out of money and had retained a VC outfit to raise cash, even quoting CEO Mike McQuary as saying

My constraint is primarily capital. We’ll be living hand-to-mouth as we try to get the first cars built. The next 200 will creep out as we raise money.

It’s the kind of story that appeals to TTAC’s occasionally vulture-like editorial instincts, as I know that more than a few of TTAC’s readers would probably get a schadenfreude-laden chuckle out of the struggles of a firm trying to sell an electrified Chinese Smart Car clone for “$33,995, including shipping” (before $7,500 federal tax credit). But after a little bit of digging through the search results for “Shuanghuan” (looking for mmore background on this Hebei Province-based automaker) I came across a website that I hadn’t expected to find: Never having seen anything resembling a Chinese-branded dealership in the US, I clicked over.

There, I found a website titled “Shuanghuan Auto,” advertising two versions of the Noble and the SCEO (neé CEO) SUV… with an Iowa address. A glance at TTAC’s archives showed one incredulous write up from Bertel two years ago, and little else to explain this unexpected find. The Noble G4 was advertised as having gasoline (1.1 liter Suzuki design, made in China) or electric options. The SCEO was shown with a 2.4 liter Mitsubishi engine or a 2.5 liter “Yuchai” turbodiesel. I briefly checked the EPA website and, finding no signs of “Shuanghuan” or “Yuchai,” I dialed the number on the website and a day later I spoke with the owner of Shuanghuan Auto Des Moines.

Gene Gabus lives up to the finest Iowan standards of friendliness, instantly warming my expectation-free cold call with immediate candor. “I don’t know if you realize this,” he says, “but it takes a ton of work to get these cars up to American market standards.” As it so happens I had heard that it was tough to import cars to the US, and soon Gabus is explaining the extensive re-working that was needed to bring the Noble’s fuel system and rear-crashworthiness up to snuff. “We’re just working on the advanced airbag system now,” he says. Having seen a Noble crash test and been impressed by everything but the fact that there didn’t appear to be any airbag, this sounded promising. He describes extensive fuel tank modifications and says that dual-fuel figured heavily into US market plans. “You’ve heard of CNG cars?” he asks. I had. This was becoming even more interesting.

“Why have I barely heard of you guys?” I ask. “We’re used to hearing a lot of hype from importers of brands like Mahindra and BYD.” “Well,” he answers, “the feds don’t like a lot of talk before they approve a vehicle. Besides, we’ve watched the other guys talk a big game and fail to deliver. We want to avoid that.”

“And you are a former Chrysler dealer?” I ask. The address had been listed as Des Moines Chrysler on Google Maps. “Did you lose the franchise during the bailout?” There’s a brief pause. “I was robbed,” he growls. His profitable dealership had lost its franchise, while a pair of smaller local competitors had kept theirs. It’s clear that the wounds are still fresh, but they haven’t stopped Gabus from diving into a full-on attempt to homologate Chinese cars for the US. I press him with more questions. “Look,” he says, “let me give you Bob Smith’s number. He’ll be able to answer all of your questions.”

Sure enough, Mr Smith answers my first phone call, and in short order is answering my questions in a warm, Southern drawl. “I’ve done business in China since 1985,” he explains. “Computers, wheelchairs, that kind of thing.” And why cars? “I’ve seen how China is growing,” he explains. “I’ve seen their demand for gasoline grow and grow. Supply won’t keep up with their growing demand, and we’ve seen what happens when gas prices approach $5/gallon. People begin to seek out alternatives.”

Smith and Gabus plan on selling gasoline and electric-powered versions of the Noble, but the centerpiece of their plan involves dual-fuel version, which run on gasoline or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Like many people who have spent a lot of time around the car industry, Smith and Gabus are skeptical about all the hype surrounding electric vehicles, and given that most importers of Chinese vehicles focus on electric conversions, this puts them in a unique position relative to their competition. Smith waxes enthusiastic about the low prices and high supplies of natural gas in the US, and says the key to his business case is the relatively low cost of natural gas conversions.

“Look,” he says, “batteries often cost as much or more than the car itself.” The struggles at Wheego, which has split homologation costs with Smith and Gabus’s Shuanghuan importation outfit (Smith calls Wheego “good guys”), fill in all the necessary details. An electric Smart clone might appeal to hard-core greenies, but at $33k, their chances of mass-market acceptance are slim. Like Wheego, Smith is banking on help from the federal government in order to break into the market, but unlike the EV hawkers, his natural gas focus helps avoid the trap of having to sell a low-cost car at high prices.

“We expect the Pickens Plan to pass this summer,” explains Smith, referencing the natural gas subsidy bill that’s been championed for years by natural gas baron T. Boone Pickens, and was recently re-introduced and endorsed by the Obama Administration. “When that happens, people will be able to build home refueling stations which tap into their home heating natural gas lines and they’ll receive a $2,000 tax credit to install it.” But that’s just the beginning. Under the Pickens Plan bill, light duty vehicles (powered by natural gas or dual-fuel) would be eligible for a $7,500 consumer tax credit, the same amount currently available to plug-in vehicles.

It’s starting to add up. Not long ago, Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl called for parity between EV and natural gas tax credits, and Honda has recently announced 50-state sales of its natural gas Civic GX. These guys are surfing a building trend. “So,” I ask, “what price point are you targeting post-tax credit?” His answer drops my jaw: “$4,000 to $5,000,” he says. I suddenly get it, and I’m floored by the idea. Low-cost, high-efficiency Chinese cars that sell at a price that’s less than half of the cheapest gasoline-powered cars on the marketplace. This is the kind of plan that has had the industry terrified, and yet has yet to be seriously pursued. And here are a couple of guys, flying under the radar, bringing a truly disruptive Chinese import to market… in Des Moine, Iowa. You can’t make this stuff up.

At this point, I stop thinking of Smith and Gabus as underdogs (or possible hucksters), and start thinking of them as a couple of shrewd operators. But, says Smith, the plan is still a huge gamble. They’ve already spent millions crashing some 32 Shuanghuan Nobles, and upgrading their bracing, fuel tanks, evaporative emissions control systems, advanced airbags and seatbelts. Having been working with the EPA and DOT for two years already, Smith confirms that he expects full DOT/EPA approval by the end of the second quarter of this year… within the next two months (Wheego has reportedly already received DOT crash-test approval). The SCEO SUV has not yet started testing, he says, and the process will take two years, so they’re starting with the Noble. Even with a crazily low targeted price point and high natural gas efficiency, there’s no guarantee that the Noble will take off. “But,” says Smith, “you have to take a chance and put some money on the table if you want to change anything.” And rather than trying to make the cover of every green magazine in the country, Smith and Gabus have started with the tough task of homologation… and now they’re almost done. Their huge bet is about to hit the table.

Before getting off the phone with Smith, I ask when he’ll next be in Des Moines. I explain that I want to meet him and Gabus at Shuanghuan Auto Des Moines, drive the Noble, and hear more about the origins of their import scheme, as well as their plans for the future. “Sure,”he says, “I’ll be there in June.” “In that case,” I reply, “so will I.” This story, which has flown below the media’s radar for two years now, is starting to take off… and TTAC will be there to cover it. By June, EPA and DOT approval should be rapidly approaching, and Smith and Gabus will be approaching the next challenge: pricing and selling these tiny Chinese cars. If the Pickens Plan passes and they’re able to hit their price points (both still “ifs,” the men admit), these industry outsiders could put Chinese cars –and Des Moines, Iowa– on the automotive map in this country. In an industry with seemingly infinite barriers to entrants, that’s a huge story… and one we’ll continue to cover.

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Chrysler Goes CNG… By 2017 Wed, 13 Apr 2011 22:05:00 +0000

There’s been a recent groundswell of interest in natural gas as a fuel for cars in recent months, marked by Honda’s decision to sell a natural gas-powered 2012 Civic in 50 states, Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl’s public paean to the fuel, and the EPA’s relaxation of natural gas conversion regulations. Honda alt-fuel manager Eric Rosenberg enthuses to WardsAuto

We’re the Saudi Arabia of natural gas… Demand [for the Civic GX] has tripled, and that’s actual retail demand. Traditionally, fleet has been about 50% to 55% of demand, but now it’s dropped; now 80% of demand is retail.

And since Chrysler’s new guardian, Fiat, has plenty of (well-subsidized) natural gas experience in Italy, it’s no surprise that Chrysler’s looking to get in on the action (Chrysler’s own experience with the stuff was brief). In fact, just last year Fiat-Chrysler was pushing the idea of natural gas cars as a stopgap until its first EV (the 500) arrives in 2012. Now, presumably because the desired government help wasn’t forthcoming, Bloomberg reports that Chrysler is only promising gassy goodness “by 2017.” Now there’s an interesting way to jump on a bandwagon.

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A Dangerously Dispassionate Look At The EV Market Sat, 02 Apr 2011 16:50:39 +0000

One of the toughest challenges facing industry analysts right now involves determining what the market for electric vehicles actually looks like, what kind of volumes it will support and for how long. It’s a problem that I’ve hashed over at length with an old college buddy who now works at a cleantech investment firm, and let me be the first to say that it’s not an easy problem to pick apart. The number of unknown quantities and moving parts explains why opinions among money managers can vary so wildly even about relatively marginal firms like Tesla.

Luckily, Thilo Koslowski of Gartner Research [and celebrated coiner of the term "the trough of disappointment"] has dedicated himself more thoroughly to the problem, and has some startling findings to report. For example, despite the relentless pro-EV hype present in all levels of the media, Koslowski’s research shows that more consumers are actually considering buying a natural gas-powered vehicle. Looks like Edmunds’ Jeremy Anwyl was on to something when he called for an end to EV tax credits in favor of greater support for natural gas cars.

But even those raw consideration numbers don’t tell the whole story. Koslowski notes

EVs primarily face a market adoption problem, not an infrastructure challenge, to move from early adopters to mainstream buyers. The ideal EV does not exist yet in today’s automotive market and will likely require another technology generation before it arrives. Consumer sentiment regarding EVs is still positive, but is beginning to show areas of concerns for automotive manufacturers when compared to 2010. EVs must provide better cost-value ratios and convince consumers that no significant behavioral changes are needed before becoming a large-scale, consumer alternative for traditional internal-combustion engine (ICE) and hybrid powertrain technologies.

This is sobering news for even the “end-to-end” EV business model, as championed by Project Better Place. The infrastructure-based approach to EV marketing may help eliminate range and depreciation issues (which addresses the behavioral change issue), but the cost-value ratio that Koslowski highlights is still an issue for concern, thanks to high upfront costs. Not that Koslowski writes off infrastructure completely, saying

Infrastructure and service providers are likely the primary beneficiaries of the current EV evolution. Utility companies, in particular, have the opportunity to play a more dominant role in the emerging e-mobility future, because U.S. consumers prefer to have their utilities address their potential EV infrastructure needs.

But the research shows, the nascent EV market is extremely price sensitive. Though 21 percent of consumers say they are considering an EV (more than are considering a new diesel car), Koslowski’s data shows that

nearly one-third of U.S. drivers interested in EVs are not willing to pay a premium price for an electric car, and only 5 percent are willing to pay $10,000 more.

You hearing this Chrysler? As a result of this study,

Gartner maintains its 2009 prediction that in industrialized automotive markets, the number of battery-powered vehicles (plug-in full-electric and plug-in hybrid EVs) as a percentage of all vehicles sold using various types of propulsion technologies will range from 5 percent to 8 percent of all vehicle sales by 2020, and from 15 percent to 20 percent of all vehicle sales by 2030.

Which leads back to the lesson that we seem to be learning over and over again, namely that, a Koslowski puts it

EVs will become one of the design elements in addressing our future transportation needs. Future mobility concepts will consist of diverse powertrain choices and business models that will leverage technology to satisfy consumers’ transportation needs while challenging traditional car ownership


Governments will need to increase funding of consumer purchase programs in order to achieve substantial EV sales in the short term. If the goal is to reduce dependency on oil and address environmental issues, then governments must broaden their policies and funding to include other powertrain technologies that offer reduced energy consumption or consider encouraging the use of public transportation and alternative mobility solutions, such as car sharing.

In short, EVs are not a silver bullet. Koslowski seems to imply (though doesn’t explicitly say) that government investments in infrastructure could help in the long term, but he definitely seems to think Vs will need consumer-end subsidies in the short term. And this need for subsidies coming and going makes alternatives like hybrids and natural gas vehicles (not to mention public transportation and car sharing) more attractive.

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Without EVs, Chrysler Gets Gassy. Will Washington? Wed, 30 Jun 2010 15:43:32 +0000

Today, natural gas is a rational alternative to gasoline that can provide a near-term environmental solution on the road to vehicle electrification. It is the most effective solution, in terms of costs and timing, to lessen this country’s reliance on oil

Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne tells the Detroit News that despite not having an electric vehicles in the works until 2012 (can you believe ENVI was just vapor), Chrysler can sell environmentally-friendly vehicles sooner than that. After all, Fiat sells a grip of natural gas-powered vehicles in Europe (130,000 last year), offering the alt-energy drivetrain on nearly every model. Of course, there’s a hitch. Or three.

Fiat’s European natural gas offerings are entirely the product of hefty subsidies, and in order to roll out the technology stateside, Chrysler’s going to need more government help. Go figure. And not just for consumer incentives (which have since ravaged the Italian market in particular), but in subsidized infrastructure. You know, like the kind of infrastructure that the US government is already subsidizing for electric cars. Sorry Chrysler, I like natural gas as much as the next windbag, but spending more government cash on an interim technology while numerous EV projects and subsidies are already underway just doesn’t make a ton of sense. Unless, as is the case in Italy, the entire program is designed to specifically help a domestic automaker… but then, Chrysler’s already had its bailout.

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Review: Ford Focus CNG Wed, 09 Dec 2009 16:16:49 +0000 2009 Ford Focus CNG 018

Ten years ago I test drove the then new to North America Ford Focus ZTS. “Give it some gas,” the salesman prodded as we entered a freeway onramp. I showed her the whip. “Can you feel that,” he yelled enthusiastically over the buzz of the straining engine. “Well, it’s certainly making a lot of noise,” I thought, “but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere very fast.” A decade later it’s deja vu all over again, except my copilot has the good sense not to pretend that this 2009 Focus is any kind of street demon. And rather than fouling the atmosphere with noxious gasoline exhaust, birds are singing and bees are sweetly humming as I explore the green virtues of driving with Compressed Natural Gas.

2009 Ford Focus CNG 020My test car, provided by Zeit Energy of Dallas, Texas, is a bestickered homage to the company and the natural gas industry. Other than the black beauty mark on its right rear heinie (the CNG refueling receptacle), it is the same kaleidoscope of geometric shapes that is the Ford Focus.

The S-trim package is a throw-back to the good old days of manual doors locks and window cranks – perfect for the fleet buyers that are most likely to delve into the realm of natural gas powered vehicles. The ergonomics are perfectly satisfactory in every respect for a vehicle at this price point. The car’s greatest feature is the five-speed manual stick shift that’s smooth, accurate and forgiving.

The only indication this car isn’t like all the rest is a square regulator control button at the base of the center console that glows green or orange, depending on the fuel pressure, and reads NG or OFF, to indicate whether the engine is drawing natural gas form the CNG tank or unnatural gas from the gasoline tank. A progress bar below the NG indicates how much CNG is left.

The bi-fuel CNG conversion kit, manufactured by Altech-Eco Corporation of South Carolina, operates seamlessly in the background. For the most part drivers simply sit behind the wheel, turn the key, and drive it like any other car. If the system determines that the CNG tank is empty a computer controlled regulator switches to gasoline. 2009 Ford Focus CNG 005

The 9.1 gallon CNG tank is made of half-inch aluminum reinforced in a cocoon of fiberglass is as subtle as Akebono Tarō in a dohyō. It has to be in order to contain the gas, which is 90% methane, at 2900-3200 pounds per square inch. But the weight devours the 140 hp 2.0-liter Duratec I4 engine. Be sure to make reservations before attempting to merge into traffic.

The tank resides in the trunk. It dominates the trunk. Not to reinforce the unsubstantiated fear that the CNG tanks can rupture explosively in an accident, but when the trunk is wide open it looks like Bruce the shark in his final scene in Jaws.

With both fuel tanks filled, the car averages about 35 mpg and has a cruising range in excess of 700 miles. That’s a good thing because public CNG refilling stations are few and far between. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there are only eight of them. These high-pressure CNG fueling stations can fill the 9.1 gallon tank in about the same amount of time it takes a gasoline pump to fill the 13 gallon petrol tank.

2009 Ford Focus CNG 011My tester cost Zeit Energy $12,500 for the Focus and $9500 for the conversion kit and installation. The Focus with an EPA certified CNG kit like this one qualifies for a $4000 federal tax credit, so the net cost of the upgrade was $5500. In other words, you would pay $18,000 for a $12,500 car that is slower and has a fraction of the trunk space of the original. That’s a hard sell for most people. Currently in DFW, an equivalent amount of CNG costs about $0.50 less than a gallon of regular gasoline so you would have to drive 385,000 miles burning only CNG to recoup the investment.

Owners would have to take consolation in the fact that CNG emissions are fee of lead and benzene, and produce 70% less carbon monoxide, 87% less nitrogen oxide, and 20% less carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that right now CNG-powered vehicles are not ready for Prime Time in America. The EPA has its boot on the throat of natural gas transportation. How? It requires a $10,000 annual fee per engine type per year of manufacture. These fees ensure that few shops will offer installation and that prices will remain impractically high for those that do.

As for the Ford Focus CNG? If you want to conserve gasoline at an affordable price, you would be much happier with a Honda Insight.

[Car and fuel were provided by Patrick Zeiter of Zeit Energy.]

2009 Ford Focus CNG 004 2009 Ford Focus CNG 005 2009 Ford Focus CNG 011 2009 Ford Focus CNG 018 2009 Ford Focus CNG 020 2009 Ford Focus CNG 026 IMG_1987a 2009-Ford-Focus-CNG-thumb Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 25