Join The Motley Fool's Austin Smith for a chat with Sandeep Munshi, director of technology and development at Westport Innovations. Based in Vancouver and with facilities in eight other countries, Westport is the industry leader in natural gas engines and vehicles.
Several things would have to happen for natural gas vehicle use to take off in a big way in North America. Munshi describes such a "paradigm shift", what it might imply, and whether it's possible.
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Austin Smith: I'm wondering if you have any thoughts, on sort of a macro level, on the implications -- particularly on the North American economy -- of mass natural gas vehicle adoption. What would that mean for North America, if there was suddenly a mass switch?
Sandeep Munshi: Again, that's a pretty significant question. It's hard to answer.
Smith: And when you're done, the meaning of life would be great, as well.
Munshi: It's hard to answer in two short sentences, but I think it would be a paradigm shift if, as you suggest, there is a mass switch from traditional fuels and traditional modes of transportation to natural gas. It would mean basically a transition from a so-called liquid fuels infrastructure in our society to a gaseous fuel energy infrastructure.
Its implications -- in terms of the type of vehicles, the kind of technologies that would come on line, the amount of investment it would attract, the innovation -- it's enormous. As I say, it's a paradigm shift. It's a very, very large change.
If that happened, it would be very, very exciting.
Smith: From a technological perspective, obviously natural gas vehicles right now are much more the application of heavy-duty, large engines.
What would we have to look for as retail investors, and as users, that may be a leading indicator of natural gas engines coming to smaller vehicles, on the individual level? What would we have to see that may indicate that that was coming?
Munshi: From a retail customer point of view, I would say some of the more obvious market indicators. Availability -- if you have a choice, availability of a large number of vehicles; there are a large number of models and manufacturers who offer natural gas cars or vehicles -- that would be a strong indicator that this is happening.
The growth in refueling infrastructure to go with that, that would be another indicator. And of course the operating economics and price of natural gas; if it continues to stay low, that continues to be a strong indicator.
Those are the indicators I would look for.
Smith: Are there any sort of technological hurdles as you make that shift from large engines to small engines that we should consider, or does it already exist?
Munshi: It's already happening. There are no specific or special hurdles, technologically speaking, to apply natural gas technology to smaller engines or smaller vehicles.
Yes, the type of engine technology that you would use would change from a heavy to medium or light-duty. It depends on the application. It depends on what the customer needs, but those things are happening. It has been done before.
From a technology point of view, I do not see any significant hurdles.