General Motors (NYSE: GM ) is making an interesting move to leap past Ford (NYSE: F ) in the race to build cleaner fueled vehicles. The company announced that its fleet-footed, agile 2015 Chevrolet Impala sedan is being launched with the option to be equipped with the ability to run on American natural gas. The move marks the first time a full-sized sedan will be made available with the ability to run on natural gas.
While the move is mainly targeted toward government and commercial fleet buyers, the car will be made available to retail buyers as well. That said, General Motors isn't expecting a herd of new buyers as it would be happy to just sell a thousand units. However, with the smaller Honda (NYSE: HMC ) Civic as its main competition in the passenger car space, the company really does have the field all to itself.
This isn't to say Ford is missing out on the natural gas vehicle market, instead, it's going right to the source of America's energy boom by offering its Ford F-Series with the option to run on natural gas. These trucks are very popular with the energy companies that are fueling America's energy boom. It's a move that already has paid off very well as it is on pace to sell more than 15,000 vehicles this year capable of running on natural gas. That's up 25% over last year.
General Motors' initial approach, on the other hand, is really geared toward fleet buyers at this point due to the lack of natural gas refueling infrastructure. While there are about 1,200 refueling stations in the U.S., only about half of those are open to the public. There are, on the other hand, more than 120,000 gas stations in America.
Still, both Ford and General Motors have taken the smart approach to this problem by building bi-fuel vehicles as the country slowly makes the transition to cleaner burning transportation fuels. For GM, it's following the pathway set by its Chevy Volt in that the vehicle's range is extended with a backup gasoline engine. In the case of the Impala, it will have a combined range of 500 miles with a compressed natural gas tank that can take it 150 miles and a regular gas tank that is large enough to go 350 miles. That should ease consumer's minds about running out with no natural gas station in sight.
Detroit's automakers are really beginning to seize the opportunity to offer consumers the ability to use more of our own domestic resources. Overall, General Motors sees its moves into natural gas, renewables as well as simply producing more fuel efficient vehicles as having a big impact over the long term. The company hopes to save America from having to import 12 billion gallons of gasoline in the 2011 to 2017 time frame. That would be enough to completely offset one year's worth of imports from the Persian Gulf.
Moves like these, when combined with rapid domestic natural gas and oil production growth, are changing the game for the American consumer. With each step we are distancing ourselves from Middle Eastern oil. While we still have a ways to go, we can't forget about the incremental first steps that will get us on the pathway to energy independence.
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