Tepidly, Fiat-controlled Chrysler Group will test the U.S. compressed natural gas waters later this year with a small number of Ram CNG pickup trucks. In an interview with Business Week at the Detroit auto show last month, Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both automakers, said, “We are going to bring them here, there is no doubt,” Sales will be “limited at first. It depends upon the distribution network.”
Previously, Chrysler executives have said they plan to offer vehicles that use the technology to fleet customers in the U.S. by 2017. A Chrysler spokesperson declined to give any further details about the automaker’s plans, including which specific Ram pickup will be converted to CNG fuel or what customers will be targeted, commercial or government fleets. That person said, “We’re sticking with what’s been said, and nothing more at this time.”
By now, it would seem that the Chrysler-Fiat marriage would have already positioned Chrysler as a prominent player in the U.S. CNG marketplace. In Europe, Fiat is the leader in natural gas vehicles where it commands an 80 percent share of the CNG-powered automobile market and a 55 percent share in the light commercial market. The company’s experience should allow it to easily transfer the technology to the American market.
Marchionne has long been a proponent of natural gas vehicles and has argued they are a better choice for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because they are less expensive than competing technologies. Specifically, electric cars present “too many obstacles” such as access to charging stations and the recharge time for batteries.
When Fiat presented its plan for natural gas vehicles in September 2010, Alfredo Altavilla, head of Fiat’s Iveco truck unit, said the additional cost for a natural gas engine is $3,000. That’s compared to $3,300 for diesel and a pricey $8,000 for a gasoline-electric hybrid.
Ford And GM Already Delivering CNG Vehicles
Meanwhile, as Chrysler takes baby steps, cross-town rivals General Motors and Ford are on a quickened pace in producing natural gas vehicles. Last year GM began delivering CNG-powered versions of the Chevrolet and GMC full-size vans and announced late last year that it would add natural gas pickup trucks. Two weeks ago, telecom giant AT&T ordered 1,200 CNG Chevrolet Express vans to be used at the company’s service stations throughout the nation.
Ford’s approach, at the moment, is targeted to taxi fleets. The taxis are CNG conversions of the gasoline-powered Transit Connect, a small van that has gained popularity as a delivery or commercial vehicle. The CNG taxis are in use in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, St. Louis and West Haven and Hartford, Conn.
Fleets are the biggest consumers of natural gas as a transportation fuel. It’s attractive because it is a clean and efficient and cost less than conventional fuels – 30 percent less than gasoline, 50 percent less than diesel. Also, corporate- and government-owned vehicles generally return to a central location to refuel, so potential worries about lack of public refueling are mitigated.
When Marchionne laid out his five-year plan for Chrysler in 2010, it included bringing commercial vans to the U.S. using the Ram brand based on Fiat’s truck platforms. Well, it’s 2012 now, the clock is ticking and competitors are already making their own strides – could this be the year we see a CNG Fiat Doblo cargo van on U.S. roads with the Ram badge affixed to the grille?