Fiat turns to natural gas as Toyota, GM go electric

DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- As Sergio Marchionne brings back Fiat SpA to the U. S. after nearly three decades, he may add another Italian speciality: the natural gas engine.
Marchionne, who is CEO of Fiat and Chrysler Group LLC, says natural gas engines offer a better way to cut emissions because they?re cheaper than competing technologies. He also argues electric cars, which General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are betting on, present ?too many obstacles? such as the recharge time for batteries.
?Natural gas is very suitable for the U. S. , ? Constantinos Vafidis, who oversees transmission and hybrid development at Fiat?s research center in Turin, Italy, said in an interview. ?Especially for public services and goods transportation, where vehicles are refueled from a central base. ?
Fiat is the market leader in Europe in natural-gas engines, with an 80 percent share of methane-powered cars and 55 percent of light commercial vehicles. Bolstering Marchionne?s view, the U. S. has the natural-gas supply for the engines after becoming the world?s largest producer last year.
?Fiat will use its technological leadership in natural gas, in a region discovered to have huge reserves, ? said Giuliano Noci, a professor at the MIP management school of Milan?s Polytechnic university. ?It?s almost a mandatory strategy. Fiat should lead the natural-gas car market as it?s far behind in the electric vehicle sector. ?
'More affordable solution'
Natural gas is a ?more affordable solution? as it?s less expensive to produce, transport and distribute compared with other fuel sources, Alfredo Altavilla, who heads Fiat?s Iveco truck unit, said in September. The additional cost for an engine using natural gas is $3, 000, compared with $3, 300 for diesel and $8, 000 for an electric hybrid, he said.
Fiat sold 127, 000 methane-powered cars in Europe last year, including versions of the Panda compact and Ducato van, helped by government incentives. The U. S. last year overtook Russia as the world?s largest producer of natural gas, as output of gas trapped in shale rock rose to 10 percent of total U. S. supplies from 2 percent in 1990.
?We?ve had contact with the U. S. and Canadian governments, ? said Lucio Bernard, director of Fiat Powertrain. The two countries have become more interested ?after the recent discoveries of shale-gas reserves in the region. ?
Sales goal
While Italy?s natural-gas vehicle market is one of the most robust in the world, with more than 800 fueling stations across the country, the market is still in its infancy in the U. S. GM just began selling vehicles with natural-gas engines in the country this year for fleet buyers. Honda Motor Co. is currently the only automaker selling cars with compressed natural gas engines to retail customers in the U. S.
Fiat and Chrysler, which is joining the natural-gas vehicles association in Washington, are currently studying whether to sell natural-gas vehicles in the U. S. , the two carmakers said. Fiat will re-enter the U. S. next year, and targets sales of 50, 000 of the 500 compact in the market.
?We?re always looking at alternative propulsion systems and how to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, so this is one thing we are looking at, ? Chrysler spokesman Vince Muniga said.
GM and Toyota are focusing on hybrid electric vehicles as their alternative to conventional gasoline engines. Detroit- based GM started production of the $41, 000 gasoline-electric Chevrolet Volt Nov. 30 and forecasts sales of 10, 000 of the cars next year and 45, 000 in 2012.
Refueling stations
Toyota is the maker of the world?s first mass-produced hybrid car, the Prius, which went on sale more than a decade ago. Chrysler is also developing an electric version of the Fiat 500 to begin selling in the U. S. in 2012 for city driving.
While recharging stations for electric-car batteries present an infrastructure challenge, locations for refueling natural gas vehicles are also limited. There are 1, 300 stations in the U. S. for the 110, 000 vehicles using natural gas, the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles said. That compares with 160, 000 gasoline stations, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America said.
The lack of methane fueling stations in the U. S. has limited these vehicles primarily to government and corporate fleets that can return to a central location to refill.
"That is where the industry is primarily putting its emphasis right now, ? said Richard Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America. Natural gas is about $1 less on average than a gallon of gasoline, he said.
Targeting trucks
Marchionne, who plans to raise Fiat's Chrysler stake to 35 percent by the end of 2011 from 20 percent, last year separated the Ram and Dodge brands to create a standalone truck unit. His five-year plan for Chrysler includes bringing large- and small-commercial vans to the U. S. in 2012 under the Ram brand based on Fiat?s trucks platforms.
?That gives them the freedom to introduce Iveco products into the Chrysler lineup, ? said Phil Gott, an IHS Automotive analyst in Lexington, Mass. ?The target customer would be the heavy duty fleets, they could cut their fuel costs in about half, ? he said of natural gas engines.
The U. S. currently ranks 14th in the world in sales of natural gas vehicles, while Italy is sixth, according to the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles. Pakistan ranks No. 1 with 2. 3 million vehicles and 3, 068 fueling stations. Marchionne hopes to boost the U. S. figure.
?Fiat?s technological leadership in compressed natural gas in Europe is a key asset for the U. S. natural gas-vehicle market, ? the CEO said last week.
Reply to
Why all the fascination over CNG? Why not just use Propane (LPG), it is a very proven fuel and is easily put in liquid form hence it is more energy dense than methane which is compressed but still gaseous not liquified?
I regularly operate a 1950s Farmall 450 LP tractor and can tell you that LP is a great fuel. Once the engine fires, even in sub freezing temperatures (which it will if it will crank and has spark) it continues to run. There is no sputtering and stalling like a cold carbureted gasoline engine. It does however require that the liquid temp is above about -12° Fahrenheit as the secondary regulator in the vaporizer needs about 15 PSI at its inlet and per a P/T chart -12 corresponds to about 15 PSI, and even that limitation could be overcome with a simple fuel pump.
The fill port on the 450's tank is also the same one that is used on a big tank such as the one for a house so refueling isn't a problem, although training of the attendants at the propane suppliers probably would be.
Reply to
Daniel who wants to know
And you can bet your bottom dollar that when the use of CNG (or propane, for that matter) becomes significant, the various gubbermints will tax it, perhaps eliminating much of any cost advantages: roads have to be paid for. I can imagine that such motor vehicles would have fill ports different from those used for a house tank, and a tax could be levied on fuel supplied from the appropriate dispensing facilities.
Reply to
Percival P. Cassidy

The problem with LPG (Liquid Patralium Gas) is the source. Prices and avaiabilty goes up and down with the price of oil. Not to mention that for the most part LPG is much more expensive than NG per BTU.
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