Could You Be Driving a Natural Gas-Powered Car Soon?

High costs, sparse fueling stations stand in the way of greater consumer adoption of natural gas cars.

Americans spent 5.5 billion additional hours sitting in traffic in 2011, a study found.

"From a geopolitical standpoint, it would give us a huge advantage," says a spokesman for Clean Energy Fuels.

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In the space of just a few short years, the United States has gone from fretting about dwindling domestic energy resources to the realization that it sits on one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.

That, coupled with the overriding desire to wean the country from its dependence on foreign oil, would make transitioning more of the nation's cars and trucks to run on natural gas the logical outcome, right?

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If just the long-haul trucking fleet – which goes through as much as 30 billion gallons of fuel per year – were to switch to natural gas, crude oil imports would fall by half according to some estimates, slashing the nation's 8 million barrels-per-day appetite for crude oil to just 4 million.

"It's not going to happen overnight but it would basically get us off being dependent on OPEC, which their membership is not always aligned with us politically," says Gary Foster, spokesman for Clean Energy Fuels. "From a geopolitical standpoint, it would give us a huge advantage."

While natural security and foreign policy might motivate the folks in Washington to support a more concerted effort to promote a natural gas-powered transportation fleet, sheer economics are driving some businesses toward greater adoption.

Thanks to the discovery of massive amounts of natural gas in shale formations across the country, prices for the fuel have plummeted to hover at about a 30 to 40 percent discount relative to diesel, an attractive prospect for companies like UPS, which rely heavily on ground transportation to provide their services.

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In late April, the company announced it would purchase 700 liquefied natural gas-powered vehicles for its long-haul fleet and build several refueling stations along transit corridors. UPS already has more than 1,000 natural gas vehicles on the road worldwide.

"We're trying to get ourselves free from dependence on oil," says Scott Wicker, chief sustainability officer at UPS. "Oil-based products are very volatile in price and there are environmental issues. We've been given this gift of shale gas – it's there, it's abundant, it's cheap, and it's burns cleaner."

Other companies are taking advantage of record-low natural gas prices and the chance to escape super volatile oil markets, too. Telecommunications giant AT&T plans to spend $350 million during the next five years to switch out gasoline-powered service vehicles with natural-gas powered trucks, according to Bloomberg. Natural-gas vehicles make up about 7 percent of the company's fleet today.

"The economics are in favor of natural gas," billionaire T. Boone Pickens told Bloomberg. "During the oil crisis in the 1970s, it took only about five or six years for the U.S. truck fleet to switch from gasoline to diesel. It's going to happen that way for natural gas."

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But while the economics might be in favor for large multi-national companies, it's a different story for average consumers. Several automakers including Chevrolet, GM, and Ford, have introduced natural gas powered pickup truck models in recent years, some of which can seamlessly switch between gasoline and compressed natural gas. Honda, too, sells a Civic that runs on CNG.

While carmakers advertise that switching to a natural gas powered vehicle could save consumers upwards of $10,500 over three years, a natural gas engine comes with an upgrade price of $8,000 to $10,000.

Fueling stations are also very difficult to find. Fewer than 1,000 natural-gas fueling stations exist around the United States and many of them are closed to the public.

All these factors mean that most Americans probably won't be driving natural gas powered vehicles anytime soon. According to a 2011 MIT report cited in a recent Washington Post piece, "High incremental costs of CNG vehicles lead to long payback times for the average driver, so significant penetration of CNG into the passenger fleet is unlikely in the short term."