Consumers face competing priorities in making automotive decisions. They want to save money on fuel, and they appreciate protecting the environment by reducing greenhouse gases, but their primary concerns are most often cost and convenience. An example is the use of compressed natural gas (CNG) as an automotive fuel, which offers both advantages and challenges.
An August 2012 AAA study found 39 percent of AAA members were interested in vehicles that used two or more fuel sources, such as gasoline-electric hybrids or “bi-fuel” vehicles such as those that can run on either gasoline or CNG. However, trade-offs that include higher vehicle prices and limited refueling options are holding them back.
“Consumers want to make the right decision for the environment, but they also need that decision to be economically sound,” says AAA’s Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair John Nielson. “Vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as CNG have the potential to meet those requirements, but the extent of the benefits varies with the vehicle and how it is used.”
CNG is up to 40 percent less expensive than gasoline for the equivalent amount of energy. On the other hand, converting a vehicle to run on CNG can cost $10,000 or more, an expense that can take years to recover in fuel savings. CNG fueling stations are also rare in most areas and unavailable in others. The Department of Energy says there are just 578 public CNG fueling stations in the U.S.
Most CNG vehicles on the road today are large trucks that get relatively poor fuel economy and travel tens of thousands of miles per year. Under these conditions, the time needed to recover the higher price of a CNG vehicle can be as little as two years, with ongoing fuel cost savings thereafter. As a result, most current CNG vehicles operate in commercial service, and large fleets often install a private CNG fueling station to meet their vehicle fueling needs.
The only CNG vehicle currently targeted at the average motorists is the Honda Civic Natural Gas – a dedicated CNG vehicle with no provision to use gasoline as a backup. With a list price of $26,465, the Natural Gas costs $5650 more than a comparable gasoline-powered Civic. In addition, the lower energy content of CNG combined with limited storage tank space gives the Civic Natural Gas a driving range of just 190 miles versus nearly 400 miles for a gasoline Civic.
“CNG vehicles can make sense and save money in some commercial applications,” says Nielsen. “However, for the average consumer, the added cost and greater inconvenience of using CNG to power a passenger car doesn’t pencil out right now – although that could change in the future.”