Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) displayed four dual-fuel prototype natural gas vehicles (NGVs) that will be introduced to the California public at the Santa Monica AltCar Expo. A BMW X3, Chrysler 300C, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Sonata have been engineered to run on natural gas or gasoline. Two other vehicles, a Ford Mustang and GMC Acadia are planned to be brought to California. The array of six dual-fuel NGVs represent a diverse group of manufacturers and demonstrate how existing automotive technology can economically add low-cost domestic natural gas to power consumer vehicles without compromising convenience or performance.

Will America Ever Embrace Natural Gas Vehicles?

What would it take to alter vehicle sales?

Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) displayed four dual-fuel prototype natural gas vehicles (NGVs) that will be introduced to the California public at the Santa Monica AltCar Expo. A BMW X3, Chrysler 300C, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Sonata have been engineered to run on natural gas or gasoline. Two other vehicles, a Ford Mustang and GMC Acadia are planned to be brought to California. The array of six dual-fuel NGVs represent a diverse group of manufacturers and demonstrate how existing automotive technology can economically add low-cost domestic natural gas to power consumer vehicles without compromising convenience or performance.

Four prototype natural gas vehicles.

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When gas prices hit their steady pace in spring, rising to levels that trigger consumer hostility and frustration, attention always turns to "alternate fuel" vehicles and the significant gas savings we crave.

Whatever our next car might be, whether we’re test-driving it at the dealership or simply browsing online, there’s no doubt that we’ll be compelled to carefully weigh all of the alternate fuel options. We’ll prioritize based on need, cost, lifestyle preferences and the viability of perceived fuel savings depending on where we live.

Consumer Reports offers a concise snapshot of the pros and cons of the current alternate fuel vehicles. But it doesn’t address how swiftly developments in public policy (such as fuel economy requirements) and the private sector might change the cost-benefit analysis of any alternate fuel vehicle.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.]

Take diesel for instance. The U.S. government confirms that diesel engines are more powerful and about 35 percent more fuel-efficient than similar-sized gasoline engines due to improved fuel injection and engine control technologies. But diesel-powered vehicles make up only 3 percent of retail passenger vehicle sales in the U.S.

Why then, do you suppose that Andreas Sambal, the North American director of marketing for German supplier Bosch’s diesel systems division, told Time magazine that “by the end of the 2014 model-year there will be 40 diesels on the market and this will give consumers a lot more choice”?  By 2017, the number of diesel models sold in North America should be up to around 60, Bosch added.

Will an unforeseeable reduction in domestic diesel prices make those vehicles more attractive to U.S. consumers? Will Tesla's Elon Musk or anyone else develop a next-generation electric car battery that enables re-charging as quickly as we refuel a gas-driven vehicle? Will U.S. energy policy assist the domestic energy boom and drive the growth of natural gas vehicles?  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

While the questions outnumber the answers, it’s worthwhile to hear what Navigant Research, an energy research and consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo., says about natural gas vehicles, or NGVs. It says the abundance and availability of low-cost natural gas along with increasingly strict vehicle emission requirements will drive the dynamic growth of NGVs.

Right now, that growth is occurring in countries that already have robust markets for NGVs, such as India, China, Thailand and Brazil, and to a lesser extent, countries like the U.S. and Germany where they are still just a niche market. Navigant Research projects that the total number of light-duty NGVs on roads worldwide will grow from 17.5 million in 2013 to 39.8 million in 2023.  Even if that holds true, NGVs will account for just 2.6 percent of all vehicles on the roads. (Here’s their report.)

Implied, of course, is that U.S. interest could grow exponentially, far beyond fleet purchasers to Main Street’s consumers, especially if the energy-rich regions containing natural gas are tapped to their potential. Until then, look for more Americans to be influenced by what they see in parts of Western Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific.