According to EPA, improvements to CNG vehicle fuel tanks could spell direct gains for hydrogen fuel tanks because they face the same challenges of safely and economically storing a gaseous fuel without limiting vehicle range. Enhancing the availability of CNG cars could also bring natural gas to more fueling stations, which could be converted to hydrogen on-site and help overcome FCEV's infrastructure speed bump.
An alliance with natural gas stations and cars?
But CNG vehicles for passenger use have their own hurdles to overcome. As with FCEVs, public fueling stations are few in number, the cars come at a premium and their fuel tanks are bulky and range-limiting (EnergyWire, July 20).
The Honda Civic Natural Gas is currently the only light-duty CNG model offered in the United States. It drives like a regular gasoline-powered car but produces 20 to 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a gasoline or diesel car. Because of low natural gas prices, the Civic Natural Gas may also offer 30 to 40 percent fuel cost savings. But the fuel tank eats up most of the trunk space, and with a sticker price about $7,000 higher than a traditional Civic, the car would have to cover a lot of ground to recuperate the cost.
Honda will receive a small credit for producing CNG cars under the new fuel economy rules for 2017-2025 but in the meantime intends to keep production steady at around 2,000 to 3,000 at its plant in Greensburg, Ind.
To meet the 2025 target, the company is pushing all its technologies at once, including the Earth Dreams powertrain technology that improves the fuel economy of conventional gasoline vehicles by 10 percent.
"We're not betting the farm on any one technology. We're moving ahead with CNG, fuel cells, plug-in hybrids and battery electrics because there is no single technology that holds the key to the world's energy future," said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of environment and energy strategy for American Honda.
Other automakers are pursuing a range of fuel-efficient technologies, too. A number of major automakers offer CNG-capable vehicles internationally, but none seems in a rush to enter the U.S. CNG passenger car market.
Ford, for instance, has offered at least two CNG cars in Germany, the Ford C-MAX CNG and Ford Focus CNG, and the Ford Ikon Flair CNG in India. The company does offer light-duty CNG vehicles in the United States for fleet use, but hasn't announced any plans to offer dedicated CNG passenger cars to the public.
Similarly, Volkswagen AG offers CNG vehicles in Europe but doesn't offer them in the United States and hasn't made plans to because the infrastructure is lacking and consumer demand is very low.
Fiat, a world leader in producing CNG vehicles, offers all types of them, including small passenger cars, buses and large trucks. The company commands more than 80 percent of the European market for CNG vehicles and could be a major player in the U.S. natural gas car market down the line.
Chrysler Group LLC, Fiat's global business partner, is "excited about the potential for natural gas powered vehicles becoming successful in the marketplace," Reg Modlin, director of regulatory affairs at Chrysler, said in his testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July. But for now, the company is focusing on the heavy-duty sector, because trucks and vans can more easily accept a large fuel tank.
Natural-gas-powered cars play catch-up
Though it's home to a wealth of natural gas, the United States is well behind other countries in adopting natural gas vehicles. There are 15 million natural gas vehicles worldwide and only 120,000 to 130,000 in the United States, where they represent less than 1 percent of new vehicle sales.