General Motors Deal Hints at Future of Natural-Gas Powered Cars

Natural-gas powered passenger cars may be getting closer to  going mainstream in the US.

General Motors signed an agreement with Vancouver-based Westport Innovations Inc. (WPT.TO) to develop natural gas engine controls, emissions and performance strategies.

Reuters reports that the multi-million dollar project will focus on light-weight engines as small as 0.5 liters, a size that would be used in small, passenger vehicles.

Natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner-burning than gasoline, has been used increasingly in buses and heavy trucks over the last decade, but it hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream light-duty trucks and passenger cars.

The only natural-gas powered passenger car on the US market is the Honda Civic GX. Few people buy it because there’s no place to fuel up.

While many US homes use natural gas for heating and cooking, there are only about 900 natural gas fueling stations in the US.

But with market and political forces pushing for increased use of natural gas reserves in the US, it’s likely just a matter of time before passenger cars are outfitted to run on natural gas, which is roughly $2 a gallon cheaper than gasoline.

One of the first adaptations could be a hybrid vehicle that allows owners to tap into the natural gas supply delivered to their homes.

Hybrid engines can be made to run on gasoline or natural gas. And vehicles could be outfitted with two fuel tanks – a smaller one for compressed natural gas (CNG) and a larger one for gasoline.

The cheaper CNG, would be topped off at home with special filling equipment attached to a homeowner’s natural gas line. Natural gas would then be used for daily commuting.

The larger, gasoline tank would be used for longer trips, and would be filled at existing gas stations along the way.

The concept is similar to home charging for GM’s Chevy Volt, which has an electric drive and batteries, but also uses a small gasoline engine to extend the vehicle’s range.

The speed with which small, natural gas vehicles arrive on the market is likely to depend on politics in Washington. The Natural Gas Act, proposed in the House of Representatives in April, would offer tax credits for purchasing the vehicles and building the fueling infrastructure. It also includes a 50 cent per gallon fuel credit.

On the other side of the argument, is the increased concern about the environmental and public health issues associated with natural gas fracking, which has been in the news extensively over the past months. See our recent coverage on the possible "ponzi scheme" of natural gas and shareholder action pressuring big oil on the subject.

Reuters reports the bill has bipartisan support and could pass this year.

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Comments on “General Motors Deal Hints at Future of Natural-Gas Powered Cars”

  1. youchaz

    About time, this was in place in Europe in 1970.I rode in a taxi that used NG or regular gas, and it drove exactly the same when it switched over from one to the other.


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