Natural-gas vehicle prototypes, Los Angeles, May 2013 - gasoline & natural-gas fillers in gas doorEnlarge Photo
The trunks and load bays are the same size as factory-built cars, and the natural-gas fueling inlets are hidden away under the same cover as the gasoline filler.
Carlab did some significant structural re-engineering to fit small tanks for compressed natural gas (CNG) into spaces formerly occupied by spare tires.
The company's engineers placed the tanks and designed the structures to comply with all current and future crash-test requirements.
Because Carlab works with many automakers on product development, it used its knowledge of structural development and testing procedures to do the work to the standards of production auto engineers, rather than aftermarket conversion firms.
Projecting the costs
A second fueling system doesn't come free, of course.
Carlab's experience in creating bills-of-material for future vehicle development projects let it accurately project the costs that automakers would pay for the components of these smaller natural-gas systems when bought in volume.
Their projections don't shoot for the moon; they assume a volume of 20,000 units a year--or about the number of Chevy Volts sold last year.
But whereas the Volt, a compact four-seater, costs $40,000--or roughly twice as much as a five-seat Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan--the price increase for the secondary natural-gas system is much lower.
In volume, Carlab projects, the added tank, plumbing, and fittings would cost $2,600 to $2,900 at a volume of 20,000 vehicles a year. That's less than a 10-percent increase in any of the vehicles prototyped.
Payback depends on compressor cost
The difference in cost between a gallon of gasoline and a gallon-equivalent of natural gas has soared from about 70 cents in 2009 to more than $2.00 today.
That means that the payback period for the added fueling system is only a few years.
2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, El Segundo, CA, Nov 2011Enlarge Photo
One variable remains unknown: The cost of buying and installing a home compressor appliance to fuel such a vehicle.
If it costs $5,000, the payback may never arrive. But, said the natural-gas proponents, if it could be bought and installed for more like $2,000, payback becomes reasonable.
With the prototype vehicles being shown publicly today for the first time, natural-gas vehicle advocates want to get the attention of both policymakers and the public.
This summer, they'll go on tour through regions that already have ample supplies of natural gas--and where sales of bi-fuel vehicles are already established.
The goal will be to get consumers thinking about the idea that they might be to drive large portions of their daily miles on a domestic, much cheaper fuel--in a car that looks completely normal and without having to compromise on performance, cargo space, or any other feature.
Best selling point: money saved
With increasing domestic supplies of natural gas and gasoline prices remaining high, the natural-gas industry believes it has a better shot than ever before at saving consumers money.
natural gas vs. crude oil pricesEnlarge Photo
Natural gas costs have fallen dramatically over 15 years, and there seems to be no sign that they'll rise again anytime soon.
So what's your take on the concept of using natural gas to fuel cars for less than 100 miles, with a gasoline tank as a range extender?
Would you buy such a vehicle? What do you think of its pros and cons?
Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.
The American Natural Gas Association provided airfare, lodging, and meals to let High Gear Media bring you this first-hand report.