Natural gas is the neglected stepchild of the alternative fuel vehicles industry.
Used in some commercial truck fleets, municipal bus services and the occasional taxicab, the plentiful low-emissions fuel has never caught on in passenger cars — even though it sells for about half the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline in California.
Two automakers are making another run at selling compressed natural gas, or CNG, cars in the U.S., eyeing a market in commuters and efficiency-minded drivers.
Honda launched an updated version of its natural-gas-fueled Civic this year — finally offering amenities such as heated leather seats and a six-speaker audio system in what was previously a Spartan car — and Chevrolet is set to launch its dual-fuel Impala in a few months. The large sedan will run on either gasoline or natural gas.
Both cars are factory produced and have the same warranties as their gasoline-only counterparts. That should give consumers more confidence in the technology, the automakers said. It also prevents arguments over blame and responsibility if a problem crops up. That issue has troubled conversions of gasoline vehicles into natural-gas autos, said Michael Jones, product manager for CNG vehicles at General Motors Co.
The two models will create competition among manufacturers of natural-gas passenger cars, something the industry has not seen in a decade, said Todd Clements, who runs AltFuelPrices.com. The website tracks the location of CNG filling stations and prices.
Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. once made CNG passenger cars, but dropped out of the market years ago. Chrysler offers a factory-produced CNG pickup truck. GM partners with a supplier to complete the building of its CNG pickup. Ford offers its F-150 truck prepped with special equipment that makes it easier to convert the pickup to run on natural gas.
“But if you want a passenger car, you have a choice right now of a Civic or a Civic,” said Clements, who drives an older model CNG Civic.
It’s not that automakers don’t understand how to offer a compelling natural-gas car. They sell many models in Europe, Clements said.
But auto companies don’t believe they can make money on CNG vehicles in the U.S., he said.
Ford officials say they have stayed out of the market because the cars are too expensive to build, there’s almost no consumer demand and they don’t believe they can produce natural-gas cars that will meet American expectations for range and cargo space.
Another factor holding down natural-gas-car sales is the lack of support from environmental groups, which advocate more for other alternative-fuel options. Lawmakers and regulators also have pushed other technologies — electric cars, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
“Look at how many different electric vehicles there are now, and soon there will be at least three choices of fuel-cell vehicles on the market, more than CNG cars,” Clements said.
Through the first half of this year, there have been only 254 new vehicle registrations for CNG autos, according to IHS Automotive. That compares with almost 47,000 registrations of electric cars and 46,000 registrations of plug-in hybrids.
This is happening even though natural-gas vehicles can reduce smog-forming emissions of carbon monoxide 70 percent and produce 20 percent less greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline-powered cars, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Nonetheless, environmentalists don’t view CNG as a solution to air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“We look at the technologies you need to put on the road not today, but in 2050. To meet the greenhouse-gas-reduction goals by then, you need electrification,” said Simon Mui, director of California vehicles and fuels for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unfortunately, CNG vehicles don’t get you there.”