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Eric's Autos: The CNG Alternative

Eric Peters on

Whatever happened to CNG - Compressed Natural Gas - as an alternative fuel? Back in the mid '90s, I test-drove a few factory-built CNG-powered "demonstrator" vehicles, including a new Ford Crown Victoria. Unlike most hybrids, the CNG Vic was a proper car: Full-size, six-passenger, V-8 and rear-wheel-drive. It required a few modifications to operate on CNG, mostly to the fuel system, but nothing particularly elaborate or expensive because the powertrain (engine and transmission, etc.) was still the same powertrain as in the standard, "gas" burning Vic.

The conversion cost at the time was about $2,500 as I recall. This of course is much lower than the cost of building a multiple (and much more complicated) hybrid gas-electric powertrain, with all its specialized components and software to run the works.

At the time, a CNG powered vehicle struck me as a simpler, cheaper, and so more sensible alternative to hybrid vehicles. It still does today - 20 years later.

Caveats? You did lose some trunk space to the CNG tanks, but other than that, there were no functional compromises. The CNG-powered cars I tested drove just like the regular gas-burning versions. In the case of the Crown Vic, this meant I got to drive a nice big car with a nice big V-8 instead of a rinky-dinky compact like the typical hybrid car, powered (if you can call it that) by a wheezy four-cylinder supplemented by an electric motor and batteries.

Oh, wait- there was one important difference. The CNG Vic produced almost no pollution - even relative to the almost-pollution-free "gas" burning modern car, the exhaust stream of of which is 97 percent water vapor and C02 (only an issue if you subscribe to AGW - human-caused global warming). Natural gas is naturally an extremely clean-burning fuel, as anyone who has a gas grille knows. Vehicle exhaust emissions could be dramatically and cheaply reduced simply by converting to CNG - or encouraging production of more CNG-burning vehicles.

No need for hundreds of pounds of toxic batteries and the attendant environmental abuse necessary to mine/process the materials they're made from. No worries about electrocuting the EMTs if you get into a wreck. No Hazmat Suit disposal issues, either.

Did I mention it takes only a few minutes to refuel a CNG vehicle? The nozzle/hook-ups are different (pressurized) but the process is essentially the same as it is when you refuel whatever you're driving now. And takes no more time. You can fuel up and be on your way in minutes - as opposed to waiting hours for your hybrid to recharge its batteries.

The Vic I tested was, moreover, capable of switching from CNG to normal "gas" - eliminating any issue with range/refueling. And even then, refueling with CNG shouldn't present a major hassle since we already have a massive infrastructure of natural gas delivery pipelines in place. Homes that use natural gas for heat could be set up with their own private fill-up stations, too.

But here's the Biggie: CNG is something we have vast, almost incomprehensible quantities of right here in the United States. How vast? The Energy Information Administration says on the order of 2,543 trillion cubic feet of the stuff.

Even the most conservative estimates say there's sufficient CNG within the borders of the U.S. alone to provide for current and projected future needs decades down the road, to 2050 and beyond. There is probably enough CNG within the Earth to keep us rolling (and warm and well-fed) for however long it takes to develop something better.

So how come CNG-powered vehicles never caught on? Most of the major car companies pretty much abandoned development of CNG vehicles for the normal consumer market. One of the few consumer-market CNG vehicles you can buy is sold by Honda (see here for details). But Honda doesn't do much to talk up the CNG Civic and most of the OEMs (including GM) concentrate on "fleet duty" CNG vehicles for the commercial market. Instead they focused - very publicly - on their hybrids. And that, I suspect, is the answer.

CNG vehicles aren't sexy - and they're not politically correct. A six-passenger, V-8 powered big sedan is not what the Watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) want the average American to be driving - if he's even permitted to drive at all.

Since most people are utterly ignorant about both the abundance of CNG as well as how cleanly it burns, it's still depressingly simply to characterize CNG powered vehicles as wasteful of scarce resources (bunk) and not as "clean" as hybrids (double bunk). If anything, a CNG vehicle is arguably cleaner - and greener - than a hybrid. The inputs are less - and so are the outputs. A side benefit worth mentioning is that because CNG burns so cleanly, oil change intervals can be extended and the engine itself ought to last longer. A standard gas-burning engine already has a service life that's much greater than the economically usable life of a hybrid. A CNG-powered car's engine should be good for 15-plus years - and easily (and economically) rebuildable, too. A hybrid powertrain isn't.

Given all this, you'd think (at least, I'd think) CNG-powered vehicles would be in the limelight, not in the shadows. But it makes sense when you look into it a little - and come to grips with the reality that politics and posturing (with a heaping helping of flapdoodle) govern what goes on - and what we're allowed to buy - rather than reason and common sense.

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