Somewhere, oil tycoon and natural-gas cheerleader T. Boone Pickens is smiling. Chrysler announced this week that it will start selling compressed natural-gas vehicles by 2017. But why is the automaker investing in yet another alternative technology when electric vehicles have car companies, charge-station manufacturers, and even the government on their side? The answer: it’s complicated. And money. The answer is always money.
For one, compressed natural-gas vehicles are cheaper than electric cars. The vehicles contain compressed gas tanks instead of pricey lithium-ion batteries. Honda’s Civic GX CNG vehicle costs $25,490–compare that to the Chevy Volt, which cost $41,000 before tax credits, or the Nissan Leaf, which starts at $32,000 before credits (these are considered the most affordable of the new batch of electric cars).
The vehicles also are on the verge of getting government support, making them even cheaper. A newly-introduced Natural Gas Bill in Congress has 154 co-sponsors, and if passed, it will allow the government to offer credits to promote and produce natural-gas vehicles, much like it already does with electric vehicles.
Chrysler is also probably trying to hedge its bets in case this whole electric-vehicle thing falls flat on its face in 10 years. And it’s not just Chrysler refusing to just settle for electric cars. Other companies are also slowly starting to enter the market. Honda plans to sell the CNG-powered Civic in 50 states next year, and GM started selling natural-gas vehicles to fleet buyers last year. And for Chrysler, this is a fairly easy move; parent company Fiat already sells natural gas-powered vehicles in Europe and South America.
Which is all to say that car makers haven’t embraced electric cars as the eventual future, yet. They just think they’re part of a diversified portfolio. But every bit of R&D money that goes to make a natural-gas car is just a wasted dollar that isn’t increasing your electric car’s range or battery life.
Potential customers should be wary of yet another petroleum alternative. The number of natural-gas fueling stations will have to scale up dramatically if the technology is to take off. And with so many companies collaborating on expanding the EV infrastructure, that might take awhile, or just never happen at all. In California, for example, there are 448 EV charging stations and only 217 CNG stations (a huge number considering that literally no one drives them), according to the DOE.
And–one more time now, T. Boone–natural gas is not a renewable resource. Electric vehicles might often charge up with electricity from coal or even natural gas, but they at least have the option of fueling up with renewables.