The head of Chrysler's Ram truck brand, Fred Diaz, said at the Chicago Auto Show this week that the company is exploring the addition of natural-gas powered engines to its line of V-8 engined Ram trucks (formerly Dodge Ram).

“I'm eager and very interested to see what we can do with CNG in our truck applications,” Diaz told reporters, according to Bloomberg. He provided neither a time line nor any indication of which current or future Ram models might be offered as natural-gas vehicles (NGVs).

The modified engines would likely be offered to fleet customers first, rather than retail buyers. Those fleet buyers are more likely to have, or be willing to install, centralized natural-gas fueling facilities.

Today, natural-gas vehicles can refuel at only 1,300 public natural-gas fueling stations in the United States, versus more than 150,000 gasoline stations.

Fiat: NGV colossus

Chrysler's partner Fiat dominates European sales of natural-gas vehicles: It builds 80 percent of all NGVs sold in the region, as well as slightly more than half the NGV small and medium vans.

Natural gas vehicles have the advantage that they cost less to develop than more complex electric-drive vehicles, from hybrids to battery electric vehicles. It costs less per mile to run a car on natural gas than on gasoline (the same applies to electricity as well).

Conventional gasoline cars converted to natural gas power, however, may lose a large portion of their trunk or load space for the compressed fuel cylinder, even though they usually have less range than the gasoline version.

Natural-gas fueled engines may play a larger part in Chrysler's green strategy than for other automakers. The company recently announced future hybrid versions of the Chrysler 300 and a minivan as well, and has said it will build small numbers of an electric Fiat 500, but it has no hybrids or plug-in vehicles currently on sale.

2010 Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, Los Angeles, November 2010

2010 Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, Los Angeles, November 2010

U.S. well placed

The U.S. is both a major source and a big user of natural gas, having overtaken Russia in 2009 to become the largest single producer in the world. Still, as with any alternative fuel, infrastructure remains a major challenge.

Right now, roughly 110,000 vehicles of all kinds are fueled by natural gas in the U.S., which is less than one half of 1 percent, according to data from the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles.

Today, only Honda sells natural-gas passenger cars in the U.S. Annual sales of the NGV Honda Civic GX model are roughly 2,000 in five states, but the company has said it will make the next-generation Civic GX available in much wider areas of the States.

[Bloomberg]

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