General Motors makes a lot of vehicles globally. And despite all the publicity around its 2011 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, most of them run on gasoline.

Now, GM has agreed to develop natural-gas engines for light-duty vehicles (that means cars and crossovers bought by retail customers) with Westport Innovations, which will open a new technical center in Michigan to work on the technology.

Last week, GM's Micky Bly told the Detroit Economic Club that CEO Dan Akerson "has made it pretty transparent this is an area we need to get into, in the North American environment."

Bly is GM's executive director of global vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles, and batteries. In other words, he knows from advanced powertrains.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Diesels first

The natural-gas agreement follows news from February that the company will offer a diesel in a 2013 Chevy Cruze model, based on the diesels it already sells in related Opel vehicles in Europe.

There, roughly half the new cars sold come with turbodiesel engines, which boast greater fuel efficiency and lower tailpipe emissions.

Natural-gas trucks

Last fall, GM [NYSE:GM] offered a natural-gas option in its commercial vans, the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savannah. The new light-duty cars, according to Westport, will be targeted at commercial and government fleets--which can more easily be refueled from a central location--and then retail sales.

2010 Chevrolet Express

2010 Chevrolet Express

Chrysler is expected to offer natural-gas versions of its Ram pickup truck by 2017, taking advantage of its new owner Fiat's longstanding expertise in smaller vehicles powered by the compressed gas.

"Natural gas is 97 percent North American-sourced," said Westport managing director John Lapetz, not to mention far less expensive per mile than either gasoline or diesel fuel.

And crucially for those countries that explicitly regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), Lapetz notes that natural gas "also produces about 15 to 20 percent less CO2 than those fuels."

Today: only Honda

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas model at New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas model at New York Auto Show, April 2011

At the moment, only one manufacturer offers a light-duty natural-gas vehicle in the U.S. That's Honda, which has sold three generations of its Civic GX sedan since the late 1990s.

The all-new 2012 Civic line continues the tradition, offering a renamed 2012 Civic Natural Gas model that will reach dealerships this fall.

Unfortunately, as Automotive News points out, Honda missed the chance to promote its new Civic Natural Gas model when single-occupant HOV Lane privileges expired for California hybrid drivers.

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

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

Natural-gas vehicles are considered suitably low emission to be granted HOV Lane access at least through 2016.

According to anecdotes from Honda dealers, prices of the very, very few used natural-gas Civics have apparently gone through the roof. Honda has only sold up to 2,000 natural-gas Civics a year in the U.S.

GM, please take note ... and let's hope that natural-gas vehicle emerges before 2016.

[Westport Innovations, Reuters, Reuters, Automotive News (requires subscription)]


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