There are 19 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the United States, including 1 million in California alone. We’re going to venture out on a limb and guess that the vast majority of people who own those vehicles don’t know what “flex-fuel” means. So let us offer you a primer!
In the early 1990s, California tried to force the introduction of electric cars by requiring that auto companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle in order to remain in the state. The result was Chevrolet’s EV1, which everyone agreed was the best electrical vehicle that could be built at the time. Owners loved them, but somehow the effort didn’t take off.
The infrastructure simply wasn’t in place. The car only had a 70-mile range and drivers spent much of their time worrying about their next charge. Many EV1s ended up on the lots of rental agencies where they attracted little attention. All this, of course, was interpreted by some people as the fault of the oil companies and the auto industry, which didn’t push the case hard enough. The award-winning documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” made this argument.
Then three years later, Toyota introduced the Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that gave drivers some breathing room. It was a spectacular success. By not trying to make the technological transition in one giant leap, the Prius introduced drivers to the advantages of electric propulsion without asking them to sacrifice anything in terms of a nerve-wracking search for a refill. In fact, when Toyota brought out the Prius it deliberately left off a home charger so that buyers would not associate it with the failed EV1. Not until several years later did the company release a plug-in hybrid. In both cases, the Prius has been the most successful of all hybrids.
Natural gas vehicles seem determined to avoid the same mistake. This year both Ford and General Motors are releasing commercial NGVs in their light-truck and sedan lines. But they are taking care to make them bi-fuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and natural gas, although they are expensive. (Both companies have been making tri-fuel — gasoline, ethanol and CNG — for many years in Brazil.) First out of the box will be the immensely popular Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra, both full-sized pickups that sold 480,000 and 184,000 last year, respectively, the highest sales mark since 2007. GM is offering bi-fuel versions for every cabin configuration. The 2015 model will offer a 16-gallon gasoline tank and a 17-gallon-equivalent compressed natural gas tank. When both are filled, the truck will have a remarkable range of 650 miles.
Along with that, GM will be releasing a bi-fuel Chevrolet Impala to introduce ordinary drivers to the advantages of natural gas. The Impala will feature an 18.5-gallon gasoline tank and a 7.7-GGE CNG tank. The result will be a 500-mile range.
Not to be outdone, Ford has already introduced a bi-fuel version of the immensely successful F-150 half-ton pickup truck. Released only last November, the company managed to sell 15,000 vehicles across eight models in 2013. That beat 2012 sales by 25 percent. When combined with its conventional gas tank, the CNG boost gives the F-150 an astounding 700-mile range, beating the Silverado by 100 miles. Unfortunately, the price differential for all these NGV models will be about $10,000.
But motorists could see a 2-3-year payback if the price gap between gasoline and its natural gas equivalent holds up. Right now it has settled around $1.50 gap per gallon and has remained there for almost five years. Give motorists the opportunity to save almost half the price on a gallon of gas is bound to make the new bi-fuel models more attractive.
Other developments are also moving in the direction of a transition to natural gas for high mileage vehicles. In 2012, ARPA-E, the federal government’s program for advanced energy research, awarded $2.3 million to GE Global Research, Chart Industries and the University of Missouri to design a gas refueling station for homeowners. GE already makes a $5,000 medium-sized refueling kit for commercial businesses called “CNG in a Box” that takes gas out of the utility pipes and compresses it for fleet vehicles. The target price for the scaled-down homeowner version is $500. The consortium has set a release date for later this year, at which point we’ll find out if they’ve been successful. The launching of such a cheap conversion system that would allow homeowners to tap the natural gas pipes in their house to refuel their cars would revolutionize the whole NGV effort.
Of course there’s always another possibility — converting our abundant natural gas supplies to ethanol or methanol that would fit right into our current gasoline delivery system. Switching to liquids would not require a new on-board gas tank but would simply involve adjusting existing engines so they could run on a variety of liquids — the “flex-fuel” system. Giving motorists the widest variety of choices would let them experiment with different strategies without having to make a giant leap over some technological chasm. That’s what California learned twenty years ago when it tried to rush the introduction of the electric car and the lesson still holds good today.