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What about natural gas?

I’ve written about Honda’s natural-gas-powered Civic a couple of times in the past.  But the only CNG (compressed natural gas)-powered passenger car ever produced never gained a marketing foothold and was discontinued in 2015.  Honda offered the car from 1998-2015, but it was hardly noticed, and no other manufacturers followed suit.  Why?  Well, like many things, development of alternative energy vehicles is a politically charged topic, involving special interest lobbyists.

Special interest groups, namely oil and corn suppliers, evidently wield all their power toward the continuation of ethanol-diluted gasoline as our prominent vehicle fuel source.  Besides that, humans are generally resistant to change, so these suppliers are aided by consumer reluctance to embrace “new” or alternative sources of energy.

We seem most content sitting atop a tank of full of gasoline — it’s just something that we are used to and comfortable with.  The scant sales record of recent gas/electric hybrids and all-electric vehicles indicates our collective unwillingness to make sudden changes in our buying and driving habits.

 “Range anxiety” creates understandable aversions to electric technology, but why haven’t natural gas vehicles caught on?  CNG is cheaper than gasoline and miles achieved per gallon are equivalent.  Incentives for switching home heating from electric to natural gas will practically pay for a new system, while propelling automobiles with CNG is nearly an unknown concept.

During its marketing run The Honda CNG (Civic Natural Gas) was touted as a vehicle with “no compromises” by its manufacturer, stressing the gasoline-like driving experience.  In other words, it starts, accelerates, stops and sounds just like the gasoline-powered vehicles we love.  The added vehicle cost over gasoline models is even modest compared to the price-hike incurred when buying hybrids and electrics. 

And natural gas is a clean-burning, domestically produced fuel.  So why has it not proliferated for motor vehicle propulsion?  Again, lobbying interests must be at play.  Also, for any alternative energy source to be viable there must be a refueling infrastructure in place — there isn’t one, and this is the same problem plaguing the popularity of electric cars.

There are only about 1000 retail natural gas vehicle refueling pumps available in the United States, compared to about 120,000 gasoline outlets.  There’s a smattering of fleet users with their own pumps, like Avista, but consumers’ fear of not finding fuel for these vehicles is akin to the range anxiety experienced in electric cars.

Some diehard users, who have privately converted their vehicles to run on GNG, have opted to install $4000-and-up residential natural gas compressors at their homes.  With that kind of devotion, one would think Honda’s CNG Civic success would be insured.

CNG Civics were sold in 35 U.S. states, but don’t look for many here.  Other countries, namely Brazil, with more than 1 million natural gas vehicles on the road, have embraced the fuel source, and many ended up there.  Also, of 1,038 retail franchises in the U.S., Honda only had 195 dealerships selling the CNG. 

With the number of homes cooking and heating with natural gas in the U.S., I would think that accepting it as a vehicle fuel source would be “natural.”  There is apparently a large domestic supply of liquid natural gas.  Additionally, natural gas vehicles are reliable, safe, and more environmentally-friendly than their gasoline-powered counterparts.  The only real impediments I see are availability of vehicles, lack of fueling stations and sadly, lobbyists and political dysfunction thwarting consensus.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.