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Why Natural Gas Cars Aren't Accelerating Like You'd Think

Natural gas is cheap and plentiful. Oil is expensive and getting rarer. So why aren't we powering our vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG)? Car blog Jalopnik looks for the answer, which we break down into three components: practical, environmental, and experiential.


Practical: Refueling Issues

As with electric vehicle adoption, a major obstacle is the lack of easy, accessible refueling stations. Gas stations are plentiful, but those who can't charge their electric vehicles at home or install natural gas tanks on their property may be hard-pressed to find their fuel of choice not only in an emergency situation but also on a regular basis. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: no one wants the vehicles until they can be refueled; no one wants to build the new refueling stations until vehicle ownership grows. Until a leader--whether private or public--emerges in this space, adoption of alternative fuel vehicles will remain slow.

Environmental: Uncertain Impact

Natural gas burns more cleanly than oil, but it comes with its own environmental costs. Natural gas is typically transported by (often oil-burning) trucks, creating emissions issues on that front. It's also extracted from the earth using fracking, a process that uses potentially harmful chemicals that can pollute groundwater and surrounding areas. Many communities are extremely resistant to fracking in their area, and additional regulations on the industry may need to be put in place as it grows. It remains to be seen just how environmentally beneficial natural gas is. It's still a fossil fuel, an unrenewable resource, and something that must be extracted from the earth. These are all strikes against it, especially when compared with sustainably generated electricity (although plenty of electricity is still generated from coal, and even natural gas itself).

Experiential: Nothing Notable

Jalopnik test-drove a vehicle with dual gasoline and natural gas engines that can be toggled with the press of a button. No major differences were noted betwen gasoline and natural gas, suggesting that natural gas could be an effective replacement for gasoline from a performance perspective. The driver summarized his anticlimactic experience: "It felt like a normal truck." The major difference? The gas/CNG hybrid truck has a range of 650 miles, particularly impressive for a pickup.

So what's the next step for CNG? The industry may need to find specific applications, such as work vehicles that need very large ranges and can refuel at a company CNG station. But until infrastructure expands and the public's fears of compressed tanks in their vehicles and homes subside, CNG may be creeping along compared with electric.


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