News Column

Natural Gas-fueled Cars and Trucks Elude Market for Now

Sept. 21, 2012

Timothy Puko, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Compressed natural gas vehicle.
Compressed natural gas vehicle.

The Chrysler 300 sedan and several Ram trucks and vans are the most likely cars to be part of a natural gas project from the Michigan-based carmaker, a company executive told gas industry officials Friday.

"We're looking long and hard at where we're going to go with this," said Tod Hartje, Head of Market Requirements for Fleet Operations at Chrysler Group LLC. "The bottom line is that this will work. We're ready to bring it forward."

The U.S. car market has been a holy grail for gas drillers for years as they've tried to find more long-term customers to draw down the gas gluts that have slowed their growth. The country could avoid foreign wars in oil-rich areas and increase its self-reliance if it converted its transit system, of which 96 percent now runs on crude oil, said John H. Pinkerton, executive chairman and director at Texas-based Range Resources Corp.

"That's a high-risk proposition. We have to diversity our transportation fuels," he said near the end of his morning keynote address. "The United States is the only country in the world that does not take advantage of the resources it has to power its own country."

The country has been caught in a chicken-and-egg situation where automakers won't build natural gas-fueled cars without highway fueling stations to feed them, but gasoline companies won't build the fueling stations without cars to use them, experts have said. Government intervention and technological advancements are key to solve the problem, Hartje said.

Chrysler's global business partner Fiat started working with the Italian government in 2001, he said. It helped triple the number of compressed natural gas fueling stations to 900 and Fiat put nine new CNG-fueled cars on the market. Sales skyrocketed until early 2010 when government incentives expired, Hartje said during his presentation.

The United States needs 4,000 fueling stations, about 3,500 more than it has now to get similar market coverage as in Italy. Chrysler makes one of only two factory CNG cars for retail sale -- it just opened its Ram 2500 HD to retail dealers last week -- and the gas tanks big enough to help it travel between fueling stations take up nearly half its bed.

To help overcome the fueling station problem, there are now home appliances that connect to a home's gas line and can refuel CNG cars there. But they can cost $4,000 to $5,000 on top of the $6,000 to $10,000 premium CNG car buyers pay at the dealership, Hartje said.

"Those two things both have to come down," for the CNG car market to take off, Hartje told reporters after his presentation. "That will happen as we get scale ... and the technology."

Companies including 3M, GE and Whirlpool are trying to advance that technology, and some have help from U.S. Department of Energy grants, Hartje said.

He said he wasn't sure how long it would take for the market to grow enough to support Chrysler's expansion of its natural gas-fueled cars. The cars he listed as possibilities are all based on the idea that engine technology from the Ram 2500 HD development can be shared or help the conversion of the other cars, Hartje said.

Source: (c)2012 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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