GM Exploring Natural Gas Engines for Consumer Vehicles

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.

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  • Andrew Hime

    Ooh, 2017! Let’s all hold our breath and wait!

  • dutchinchicago

    My first car nearly 20 years ago in Europe was a Natural Gas Vehicle. I can not believe that this is presented as the way forward for the US. Surely we can do better.

  • jeerlinger

    CNG vehicles and hybreds are already available in Europe and Canada. By the time GM gets around to this it will be too late. It is obvious to me that there is some bigger reason why we don’t have this cheap, clean energy option in the US passenger cars in a large way. I just can’t understand the reason for it

  • Dave Black

    Ive been driving on propane for 10 years and let me tell you ive saved a bunch of money. Propane in Puerto Rico is about 40 % less expensive than Gasoline. So they should go for it.

  • Capt. Concernicus

    I’ve been driving on belching power for years. Why aren’t you? 🙂

  • Max Reid

    There are more than 14 million NGVs worldwide.
    Ideally the companies should offer dual-fuel vehicle with 40-50 mile CNG range with the rest being gasolene. There are very few CNG stations and so no one will buy a CNG only vehicle.

    When it comes to AFV, Americans are sadly far behind.

    A Russian company is planning to introduce a CNG Hybrid.

  • John K.

    CA has a decent number of CNG filling stations and I expect the number to greatly increase, both in CA and the entire USA, over the next 2-3 years.

    CNG hybrids probably offer “the biggest bang for the buck” re. energy independence and reducing emissions until battery tech really improves and prices decrease dramatically over the next 10 years.

  • James Davis

    GM still doesn’t realize why they went bankrupt do they? Get rid of that stupid CEO!!!

  • IcanhasEV

    The article mentions escalating fuel economy standards as one of the factors that is making CNG vehicles more attractive, but I was always under the impression that CNG engines got less MPG than an equivalent gasoline engine. Is that wrong?

  • meccano

    CNG is clean, domestic and safer than gasoline with no batteries to manufacture, replace and recycle. For it to work on any scale though there needs to be a cheap and easy way to hook up your gas line at home to refill your CNG car. Honda and Fuelmaker failed miserably at this task with a product that is both too expensive, unreliable and recently totally unavailable. If people can fuel at home you’ll sell more CNG cars. With those new CNG cars on the road you’ll see more CNG refueling stations to refill when you’re away from home.

    Until then, fleet cars and a few die hards need only apply.

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  • dlinkeg

    We have owned our Honda Civic GX since December 1998 and are surprised that no other manufacturer in the US has come forward with a consumer NGV like Honda. We enjoy refueling in our garage overnight for less than $1.30 per gas gallon equivalent, however, we purchased our Phill used for 20% of the new cost. We agree that the FuelMaker Phill was way overpriced (it was supposed to debut for $1,000, but ended up priced at $3,500, a big mistake). While another poster commented that FuelMaker is gone, that is not true. The new owner, BRC FuelMaker, exists and is once again selling home compression units, however, they are still expensive. There are other manufacturers around the world who have developed competing CNG home compression units for less than $2,000, but they have not come to North America. 50% of the natural gas in Sweden is biomethane, produced from agricultural products and waste with nearly a zero greenhouse gas contribution. This is easily possible for the USA to develop, however, current low natural gas prices are hindering development of biomethane production plants.

    Comparing the safety of an NGV to a gasoline “driving a rolling liquid bomb” car, I feel much safer in our NGV. With over 250,000 car fires in the USA annually, and a few hundred deaths from those fires, why would anyone call NGVs dangerous, especially since natural gas is non-toxic, has never been involved in a fire (except for a couple illegally converted propane tanks in India–not safe at all), can be produced domestically in any country in the world, has dramatically lower particulate emissions, is greener overall than another other technology, except for the latest pure EV Mitsubishi “i”, and dissipates up and away from a vehicle in the unlikely and extremely rare event of a leak, significantly reducing any potential of a fire?

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