2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
In some ways, natural-gas cars are hampered by their own form of range anxiety.
The high-pressure tanks necessary to hold enough fuel to drive 200 miles or more take up many cubic feet of cargo space, and public fueling stations are extremely rare.
Electric-car drivers can overcome range anxiety with home recharging--but could this work for natural-gas cars as well?
Eaton thinks so. The company is developing a home refueling station that could cost just $500 to produce.
James J. Michels, Eaton's communications manager, told The New York Times about the home appliance, which Eaton hopes to have on sale by 2015.
Natural gas has many potential benefits: it burns cleaner than gasoline and is relatively plentiful. An amount of natural gas with the same energy as 1 gallon of gasoline costs about $1.50 less than gasoline at today's prices, according to the Times.
However, lack of available refueling stations limits the appeal of natural gas as a fuel outside of fleets who can maintain their own fueling facilities. There are roughly 1,000 natural-gas fueling stations in the United States, but only about half of those are open to the public.
Home refueling could be a more viable option because it relies on an existing infrastructure. Roughly half of all American homes are now plumbed for natural gas for heating, hot water, or both.
Eaton has not determined a retail price for its $500 home refueling station, but it would need to be fairly inexpensive to offer a reasonable payback for consumers.
Natural-gas vehicle prototypes, Los Angeles, May 2013 - group shot at Playa del Rey storage field
Gas-industry groups have recently prototyped natural-gas vehicles with gasoline engines as range extenders.
But the value proposition of such a vehicle depends on a home appliance costing $1,000 to $1,500--or less.
The Honda Civic Natural Gas is currently the only natural-gas passenger car sold in the U.S. Honda used to offer a home refueling device called the Phill, which cost about $4,500 and could refuel the car overnight.
However, Honda discontinued that device with the introduction of the redesigned 2012 Civic Natural Gas. The Phill is still available from its manufacturer, BRC FuelMaker.
According to the car's owner's manual (PDF), Honda no longer recommends home refueling--because of concerns over the widely-varying quality of non-commercial gas and the possibility of home devices letting moisture into the fuel system.
Both of those concerns are issues that Eaton and any other maker of a natural-gas fueling appliance will have to address, to the satisfaction of national safety regulators, local building inspectors, and the automakers themselves.