GM deal could lead to more natural-gas-powered vehicles

Jul 7, 2011


Natural-gas powered passenger cars may be going mainstream in the United States.

General Motors recently signed an agreement with Vancouver-based Westport Innovations Inc. to develop natural gas engine controls, emissions and performance strategies.

Reuters reported that the multi-million dollar project will focus on lightweight engines as small as 0.5 liters, a size that would be used in small passenger vehicles.

Natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner-burning than gasoline, has been used increasingly in buses and heavy trucks over the past decade. But the alternative fuel has not yet made its way into mainstream light-duty trucks and vehicles.

Currently the only commercial, natural-gas powered passenger car on the U.S. market is the Honda Civic GX.

While many U.S. homes use natural gas for heating and cooking, there are only about 900 fueling stations for natural gas in the United States, meaning the domestic fuel source is currently not practical for passenger vehicles.

But with market and political forces pushing for increased use of natural gas reserves in the States, it’s likely just a matter of time before passenger cars are outfitted to run on natural gas, which is roughly $2 a gallon cheaper than gasoline.

One of the first adaptations could be a hybrid vehicle that allows owners to tap into the natural gas supply delivered to their homes.

Hybrid engines can be made to run on gasoline or natural gas. And vehicles could be outfitted with two fuel tanks — a smaller one for compressed natural gas (CNG) and a larger one for gasoline.

The cheaper CNG would be topped off at home with special filling equipment attached to a homeowner’s natural gas line. Natural gas would then be used for daily commuting.

The larger, gasoline tank would be used for longer trips, and would be filled at existing gas stations along the way.

The concept is similar to home charging for GM’s Chevy Volt, which has an electric drive and batteries, but also uses as small gasoline engine for extending the vehicle’s range.

The speed with which small, natural gas vehicles arrive on the market is likely to depend on politics in Washington. The Natural Gas Act, proposed in the House of Representatives in April, would offer tax credits for purchasing the vehicles and building the fueling infrastructure. It also includes a 50-cent-per-gallon fuel credit.

Reuters reported that the bill has bipartisan support and could pass this year.

As to the GM Westport deal, Westport announced the planned opening of a new technical center in Michigan. Westport’s personnel currently includes approximately 15 people in Farmington Hills, Mich., and Westport plans to add more people and invest in facilities as demand grows for natural gas-powered, alternative-fuel vehicles.

To support OEM programs, Westport plans to add research and development facilities to develop technologies that enable vehicles to run on natural gas for business and government fleets, and personal use.