Natural Gas Vehicles: Why Aren’t We Buying Them?

April 28, 2016

The number and type of alternative fuel vehicles available to Americans has dramatically increased over the last 10 years. Competition has also increased within the alternative fuel vehicle market, or so it seems. It might surprise you to know that there is one type of green vehicle that is increasingly common worldwide, but isn’t much talked about here in the U.S. We’re talking about Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs).

Natural Gas Cars: Pros and Cons

The two types of NGVs – Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) are fuel-efficient vehicles that burn low-emissions fuel that’s better for the environment than petroleum-based fuels. They don’t aren’t expensive to build and don’t pose any danger greater than that of traditional gasoline vehicles.  The best part is that these fuels cost significantly less than traditional gasoline—fuel savings estimates range from 30-40% less than the cost of fueling a gasoline powered car. That’s really cheap.

How are Natural Gas Vehicles Different from Other Alternative Fuel Vehicles?

Car Construction

While their engines and fuel systems are modified to make use of natural gas, these alternative fuel vehicles are otherwise quite similar to existing gasoline or diesel cars in terms of parts used. Because of this, it is easy to create a fuel efficient vehicle, unlike electric cars which require heavy batteries which must be compensated for. It stands to reason that car manufacturers could simply modify existing assembly lines to install the parts unique to these natural gas vehicles, as opposed to opening new facilities or completely revamping existing assembly lines.

Differences in Maintenance

Fuel Costs

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the CNG and LNG vehicles and their petroleum based counterparts. NGV’s fuel costs are anywhere from ½ to 1/3 that of petroleum-based cars. This sounds great at first, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy, CNG cars don’t go as far on a tank of gas as gasoline cars do. This brings up the issue of fuel efficiency.

Fuel Efficiency

Natural gas is cleaner. This we know for a fact. Despite being cleaner, it isn’t the same as gasoline and to treat it as a cleaner version of gasoline would be unfair. Natural gas vehicles cost less to fill up and you can go about the same distance as you could using regular gasoline. You don’t get the same amount of power out of NGV’s though.

Diesel fuel is the most effective in that it produces the most torque of available fuels for consumer vehicles—but it’s dirtier and often more expensive than natural gas. Gasoline falls in the middle; it’s not cheap and isn’t exactly clean, but it produces good “power”. Natural gas, or CNG more specifically is very efficient, very cheap, and produces much less power. For that reason, natural gas powered cars make ideal city driving vehicles. On a level plane, they do just fine. However, if you needed to drive your car up a steep hill, you’d definitely feel that lack of power.

Fuel efficiency for compressed natural gas vehicles can be difficult for the consumer to calculate themselves as the metric for fuel efficiency in CNG and LNG vehicles isn’t actually miles per gallon (MPGs), but is actually MPGGEs—miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. Since we’re using a gas and not a liquid, the measurement changes and the computations for efficiency can get pretty complex. But this brings us to our next point.

Incentives for Driving NGVs

Natural Gas is one of the easiest alternative fuels to switch to and to some extent the federal government seems to be on board. View the list of federal tax incentives available to NGVs.

Other incentives include:

  • Reduction in polluting emissions, including greenhouse gasses.
  • Financial incentives including manufacturer rebates, state, and federal tax rebates.
  • Lower fuel costs.
  • Reduced reliance on overseas fuel sources.

There are some difficult pros and cons when it comes to deciding whether or not natural gas vehicles are for you. Some of the obstacles can be easily overcome, while others may require lobbying state and local lawmakers in order to get the ball rolling. One thing is certain, NGVs are gaining ground as popular alternative fuel vehicles and should be given better consideration in the U.S. as a clean means of transport.

What’s Stopping Me from Buying a CNG or LNG Car?

Availability of Natural Gas Vehicles
Natural Gas Vehicles

There are several obstacles to NGV ownership. The first and most obvious is the lack of availability of the cars themselves. Honda is currently offering a CNG vehicle in the U.S. (though their sales focus appears to be on California) and Ford has revealed its intention to bring a CNG F-150 to market in 2014, but other than that the U.S. consumer doesn’t have any readily available options. Making it even more difficult is the fact that these vehicles aren’t available in every state currently.

Lack of Infrastructure

Quick and easy access to a fuel pump is kind of a priority for vehicle owners. When it comes to NGV’s, the infrastructure just isn’t there in many places. NGV car owners do have the option of having a home refueling device installed, but costs of said installation can exceed $5,000 which adds to the overall cost of the car.

The Cost

Even on cars that come with CNG fuel systems and engines, consumers can expect to pay a premium for these green vehicles. The Honda CNG Civic costs roughly $2,000 more than the Honda Civic Hybrid and Si models. It costs about $8,000 more than the standard Honda Civic sedan. That’s not a premium most consumers are willing to pay, especially considering that converting an existing gasoline-powered car to compressed natural gas costs about $5,000 including labor.

However…

The items listed above are often given as reasons for why natural gas vehicles won’t work in the U.S. It’s an odd argument to make given that a growing number of American cities use NGVs in their fleet and public transit vehicles. Los Angeles is one of the largest programs running, but CNG and LNG busses, cabs, and fleet vehicles can be found in Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. More states are recognizing the success of these programs in reducing pollution and reducing costs.

Overall Comparison of NGVs vs. Gasoline Vehicles

All told, CNG and LNG vehicles are a good value if you live in the city and either have access to a natural gas fuel pump in your area or have a home refueling system. If you’re still not sure, you can get more information from the Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Still want a fuel-efficient vehicle, but want to consider options other than NGVs?

The Most Fuel Efficient Cars Under $10k


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