General Motors has entered an agreement with natural gas engine manufacturer, Westport, to co-develop small compressed natural gas engines that could find their way into future GM models. Executive Micky Bly told Reuters last week that the company doesn’t plan to be left behind on CNG development, saying that CEO Dan Akerson “has made it pretty transparent this is an area we need to get back into in the North American environment.”
Westport’s experience is mostly with medium and heavy duty truck engines, though according to a report in Auto News, GM is focussed on engines as small as 0.5 liters.
The only mass-market natural gas car available in the United States is the Honda Civic GX—which is currently sold in just four states and is scheduled to be released in 2012. But just because Honda beat its rivals to market with its CNG model doesn’t mean it will be alone for long.
In April, Bloomberg reported that Chrysler is aggressively developing its own CNG vehicles in tandem with parent carmaker FIAT. FIAT markets six different natural gas models in Europe and could use its experience with the technology to help boost Chrysler into compliance with rapidly rising federal fuel efficiency standards that could increase by as much as 6 percent per year in the next decade. Reportedly, a CNG version of the Dodge Ram pickup could make its way to market by 2017.
Recent momentum behind CNG vehicles can be attributed to three major factors of late: Escalating fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks; consistently cheap natural gas prices in the face of rising gasoline prices; and a favorable package of federal incentives that analysts predict could pass by the end of this year.
The NAT Gas Act is considered to be the brainchild of Texas energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and has recently managed to gain bipartisan support in Washington—no easy feat these days. Several years ago, Pickens became a heavily-invested activist for natural gas as a transportation fuel, and has since managed to win over some powerful allies, including the White House.
The NAT Gas proposal could be worth as much as $4.1 billion, offering purchase incentives of as much as $7,500 for consumer vehicles and a $0.50 per gallon subsidy on natural gas at the pump. The law would also offer generous tax breaks for retailers willing to install those pumps, potentially paving the way for a nationwide CNG infrastructure.