When it comes to motor fuels, natural gas may be one of the best alternatives to gasoline on the market today.
It burns cleaner than gasoline, resulting in lower tailpipe emissions. It costs about half as much as gasoline, yet delivers a very similar driving experience.
So why haven't manufacturers begun rolling out new models powered by compressed natural gas (CNG)?
There are two reasons: first, the range of a CNG vehicle is about half that of a gasoline-fueled vehicle, despite the large onboard CNG storage tank that potentially limits the carrying capacity of a CNG vehicle.
The biggest objection, however, is infrastructure: there simply aren't enough CNG refueling stations nationwide to make CNG powered automobiles attractive to most drivers.
Michigan is taking steps to remedy that, and the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (MichCon) recently unveiled a new CNG fueling station in Melvindale, just southwest of Detroit.
2010 Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, Los Angeles, November 2010
Nationally, the number of CNG refueling stations numbers about 1,000, but only 50 percent of these are available to the public. Much of the infrastructure is on the West coast, so consumers in the Midwest, East or South may have a difficult time finding convenient CNG refueling stations today.
That may soon change, as Honda has announced nationwide availability of their CNG powered Civic GX (for fleet customers, at least), and other manufacturers have plans for CNG vehicles. And General Motors now offers natural-gas versions of its large commercial vans.
Natural gas conversions of existing vehicles are becoming more popular as gas prices rise, but the cost of conversions (up to $20,000) makes them more attractive to fleet operators than private owners. Still, some 114,000 CNG powered vehicles are on U.S. roads today, and that number is likely to increase as long as the price of gasoline remains high.