Compressed Natural Gas – The Future of Full-size Truck Engines?

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Lately there seems to be a lot of talk about Compressed Natural Gas trucks and conversion kits. This trend, plus the absurdly rising gas prices, has us wondering is CNG a viable bi-fuel source for full-size trucks?

While the facts differ at times, here is the most recent reliable information we have found.

CNG - Future of Full-size Truck Engines?

What's the deal with CNG, is it the future of full-size truck engines or is it only for commercial and Government fleets?

Currently Chrysler is planning to build a CNG-powered Dodge Ram truck, Vechurs Motor Systems recently debuted a converted CNG-powered Ford F-250, reports have it GM will offer a bi-fuel Chrevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 pickups and Ford is planning to offer a conversion kit for the F-650 all by the year 2013. While most of these trucks are for commerical and Government fleets, the trend to build more bi-fuel CNG/gasoline engines is obvious.

What’s the deal with CNG?
CNG is a fossil fuel that is comprised mostly of methane and nearly 87 percent of it is domestically produced. It is an earth-friendly fuel that can produce 60-90 percent less smog-producing pollutants than gas. And it is currently cheaper than gasoline per gallon. However, it is hard to compare apples to apples with regards to price per gallon since CNG engines are slightly less fuel-efficient due to the gas having less energy per unit.

Why Build Them?
Most CNG vehicles that are coming out are destined for commercial or Government fleets. This is for many reasons including:

  • Natural gas prices are typically lower than gasoline and more stable (better for budgeting)
  • Commerical/Government fueling stations are widely available (Public, not so much)
  • Some fleets have reduced maintenance and operating costs due in part to higher octane rating and clean-burning properties

These benefits combined with the Environmental Protection Agency consistent pushing for lower CO2 emitting vehicles are driving the production of bi-fuel trucks. While yes, they are more expensive than there gasoline counterparts, the long-term benefits and Government incentives (commercial buyers) makes them an increasingly wise decision.

Yeah, but how do they drive?
According to the Department of Energy, “Natural gas vehicles are similar to gasoline or diesel vehicles with regard to power, acceleration, and cruising speed.” That’s nice, but how will it really perform in heavy-duty trucks?

As was reported in the Ford F-250 Park Ranger story, handling and driving were very comparable. However, the truck lacked the power needed to tackle the more difficult trails. The other truth is that acceleration is compromised when driving a CNG-powered vehicle. These issues have meant CNG has been better suited for small cars like the Honda Civic.

The jury is still out on whether a full-size, heavy-duty bi-fuel CNG pickup will perform (power, towing) the same as a straight gasoline/diesel truck.

What does this mean for Consumers?
For a long time now, trucks owners have been pushing for more diesel engines in full-size trucks (Tundra) and in compact trucks like the Toyota Tacoma. However, auto manufactures aren’t building them. And importing diesel powered compact trucks has been filled with strife (see Mahindra). Instead they are researching and developing a whole host of different ideas including everything from new engines types like Ford’s V6 EcoBoost to Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition and Hybrids. They are also looking to build new, smaller trucks like Daimler’s Smart for Us and the recent rumors of a new Scion-based truck.

All of this news is combined with the changing dynamics of diesel that include gasoline engines catching up in fuel efficiency and the gap in price closing means bi-fuel engines seem to be the future.

The Big Problem, how do you fill it up?
With all the promise of CNG, the big problem still remains, a lack of public fueling stations. Yes, you can sometimes use commercial stations, but this isn’t a long-term solution.

Many new ideas are emerging including Honda’s idea to install CNG fueling stations at dealerships and the use of home fueling stations (somewhat controversial, not totally recommended). Will gas stations go away and be replaced by stations in front of dealerships? Who knows, but the issue of fueling stations will drag down CNG until it is resolved.

How will the promise of CNG play out? Will truck manufactures build them only to find no market for them due to fueling issues? Or will electric hybrid engines be the better option?

What do you think?

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  1. Will says:

    Natural-gas vehicles have been extremely slow to catch on. Last year, out of 14.5 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States, just 20,381 ran on natural gas.

  2. Mike T says:

    well, CNG is made by compressing natural gas CH4, to less than 1% of the volume it occupies at standard atmospheric pressure. It is stored and distributed in hard containers at a pressure of 200–248 bar then it is used in vehicles.

  3. Steve says:

    For now at least, the practical application of CNG for transportation lies with large commercial trucks. Outfits like Fedex and UPS and so forth will have their own dedicated refueling stations. Very efficient engines are being developed by companies like Cummins and Westport. This is the coming thing. In fact, economics virtually guarantee it.

    • Tim Esterdahl says:

      Steve,

      Great points! And I agree, it seems more likely that UPS will be a leader in this area. They will also be a leader in dropping weight in their trucks. How do I know? I already wrote about it: http://www.tundraheadquarters......p-s-truck/ :)

      It is certainly a coming trend in the market and one we will be following closely.

      -Tim

  4. Matt says:

    So Tim, When will Toyota offer their Tundra in a CNG option? That was the question I was wondering if this article would answer? If you think about it those looking between the Tundra and the Tacoma and the difference is gas milage the Natural Gas option is a no-brainer right now on the Tundra. Can’t wait to see one. I would also like to see any suggestions or not so from Toyota if their motors will handle this option due to heat or lack of lubrication due to Natural Gas option.

    • Tim Esterdahl says:

      Matt,

      The problem with CNG is and has always been the lack of fueling stations. I have driven several different CNG vehicles and I agree, they are pretty great. Yet, when it is time to fill them up, it is extremely stressful. Until recently, the majority of fueling stations were only on commercial job sites or in fleet garages. Take the lack of fueling stations and the large tank you would need to keep CNG in and it is tough to see Toyota offering the Tundra any time soon.

      There is also another issue for Toyota. You may know that GM and Ford sell an extremely small amount of them from the factory. GM and Ford can do this because frankly, they have the capacity with 3 production plants. Toyota has one and doesn’t have the capacity to really offer many different power train options.

      Lastly, there are some third-party suppliers that can convert your vehicle, however, the return on investment time frame is really long.

      -Tim

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