GM is planning to offer a version of it's Chevrolet Impala with a special feature- the ability to switch between gasoline and natural gas. This #dual-fuel Impala will allow drivers to switch between gasoline and compressed natural gas (CNG), based on which is cheapest or available at the time. The car will have one engine, and two fuel tanks on board.
The car is a first in North America. It will be the only natural gas passenger car offered by a Detroit automaker, as well as the only dual-fuel car. It's only rivals are Honda's CNG-only variant of the Civic, and the CNG-fueled version of the F-150 pickup truck. Chrysler has a bi-fuel version of it's RAM 2500 truck that starts on gasoline, switches to CNG, and then returns to gasoline when the CNG tank is empty.
Natural gas is both plentiful and cheap these days, making it a viable automotive fuel. Natural gas used to be more expensive, and pumps were scarce. Even the high strength tanks that store the fuel at high pressure is cost prohibitive. It's cheaper now though, about half the price of gasoline. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the OPEC oil embargo, automakers are reminded of just how much our reliance on Arab oil affects the industry, and how alternative fuels are necessary.
Automakers have been giving CNG a second look. It's often offered as an option for fleets and large commercial vehicles like city buses who tend to have their own pumps and infrastructure. The dual-fuel Impala will be offered both to fleets and to retail customers. It will likely appeal mostly to customers who put a higher value on fuel efficiency such as government and corporate fleet customers, and have greater access to CNG fuelling facilities.
GM is following it's Volt model for the CNG Impala by offering the gasoline back up. Since natural gas pumps can be hard to find, the gasoline option will reduce range anxiety in owners, and keep them from running out of fuel during long trips.
The dual-fuel Impala, set to go on sale next summer, will have a combined range of about 500 miles (800 km). The compressed natural gas will account for approximately 150 of that, with gasoline covering the remaining 350.
Several automakers already offer CNG-fuelled pick up trucks. GM is showing that it sees a future for natural gas in the passenger car market with the launch of this full sized sedan.
The automaker understands that adaptation will be slow, but feels the concept has a promising future and is committed to the long haul. Ford's CNG-fuelled pickup truck is likely to sell about 15,000 units in 2013, an increase of 25 percent from last year. GM is hoping to sell 750 to 1000 dual-fuelled Impalas in 2015.
One of the barriers to adaptation is the up-front cost of CNG powertrains. The CNG versions of the Civic and the F-150 cost several thousand dollars more than their gasoline powered counterparts. Automakers are receiving extra credits from the U.S. government for these vehicles through 2021. Governments are fans of CNG powered vehicles because it is a cleaner burning fuel, generating nearly zero soot and smog. These vehicles have 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than comparable gas-powered vehicles.
The scarcity of CNG pumps remains a problem. In the U.S. there are about 1,200 CNG fuelling stations, however only about half of them are publicly accessible. This is cited as the main reason why Volkswagen, the second largest seller of CNG-fuelled cars has resisted bringing it's natural gas vehicles to North America. Fiat is the largest seller of these vehicles.
By Linda Aylesworth - autoExpert.ca