U.S. auto makers are introducing pickup trucks powered by natural gas as they
look to catch the growing wave of interest in the fuel as an alternative to
On Tuesday, Chrysler Group LLC plans to disclose it will build the first
production-line pickup truck powered by natural gas. The auto maker is promising
to build at least 2,000 heavy-duty Ram bi-fuel trucks that run on a combination
of compressed natural gas and gasoline starting in June.
General Motors Co. on Monday plans to
disclose it will offer bi-fuel Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 pickups
in the fourth quarter. The trucks will be built by GM and sent to a supplier
that will retrofit them to use compressed natural-gas tanks.
In 2009, the American Gas Association and America's Natural Gas Alliance met
with a variety of auto makers to urge them to build complete CNG-powered pickups
at the factory.
Chrysler, which was put under the management control of Italian auto maker Fiat SpA in 2009, took on the
"As a result of our partnership with Fiat, we are able to get to market with
this as quickly as we have to start testing to see the future of this CNG
technology," said Chrysler Ram chief Fred Diaz. Chrysler will sell the Ram 2500
pickups to fleet operators or natural-gas explorers.
Houston natural-gas explorer Apache Corp. has been prodding
auto makers to build CNG vehicles for years. Since 2009, the company has
converted a quarter of its 1,000 U.S. vehicle fleet to CNG, and expects to
increase that to 80%. Chief executive Steven Farris drives a Chevy Avalanche
that was retrofitted to run on CNG.
The company's 250 natural-gas powered vehicles were retrofitted at
dealerships, however, raising costs and complexity. Auto makers' decision to
build CNG vehicles on the factory floor helps Apache by providing a single
source of truck supply and parts. And it helps position natural gas as a vehicle
fuel supported in the mass market, said Frank Chapel, Apache's director of
natural gas transportation fuels. "It shows [auto makers] think they can do this
and actually get a payback," Mr. Chapel said.
Honda Motor Co. has been selling its
CNG-powered Civic NG passenger car in the U.S. since 1998. The car, which runs
only on natural gas, is distributed by 200 dealers in 36 states with a starting
price of about $26,200.
Chrysler said its CNG-powered Rams can travel 255 miles on the fuel before
automatically switching to an eight-gallon gasoline tank for an additional 112
miles. GM's pickups would go up to 650 miles using both CNG and gasoline.
The biggest hurdle to wider use is refueling. Today there are fewer than 400
public CNG fueling stations in the U.S.
The interest in natural-gas vehicles comes as gasoline prices are on the rise
again and support for using domestic natural gas to replace oil is gaining
support. After years of promoting electric cars, President Obama signaled a
change in the administration when he said during his January State of the Union
speech the nation needs to explore all alternative energy sources.
"We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years," Mr.
Obama said in his speech. "My administration will take every possible action to
safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000
jobs by the end of the decade."
Chrysler said its CNG Rams will be built at a Saltillo, Mexico, pickup plant
and outfitted with two tanks that sit in the forward position of the 8-foot
pickup bed. Inside, the dashboard has two fuel gauges with one displaying a fuel
pump over the initials CNG.
"For us, this is the first step and if the opportunity presents itself we
wouldn't turn our back on a CNG-powered passenger car," said Peter Grady,
Chrysler's vice president of network development and fleet. "We aren't working
on it now but we do have it in the back of our minds."
GM will build its pickups in Fort Wayne, Ind., and send them to Impco
Automotive in Union City, Ind., for installation of the CNG delivery and storage
system. The company will take orders in April and start production in the fourth
Ford Motor Co. has been offering CNG
prep kits for about a half-dozen vehicles, including the Transit Connect, since
2009. It will expand the offering to its large Ford 650 pickup truck in the
Ford modifies the engines in the vehicles at the factories to operate on CNG
and then allows the customer to choose how and where they are fitted with the
Rob Stevens, Ford's chief engineer for commercial trucks, said the approach
allows the company to offer the CNG option across more vehicles. It will switch
to factory-built CNG vehicles once demand increases, he said.
—Ben Lefebvre contributed to this article.