For decades we've been looking for alternatives to gasoline fuel and our dependence on imported oil. Slowly but surely, I believe, this revolution is taking some major strides forward, magnified by the rise in oil prices. Quietly, the U.S. has become one of the world's leaders in natural gas production, and prices have fallen so low that it's impossible to ignore as a potential vehicle fuel.
I would love to say that we could flip the switch and change from gasoline-powered vehicles to natural gas. The problem is that the natural gas infrastructure is decades -- at least -- behind when it comes to fuel. Gasoline fuel stations are established on almost every street in every city and on every highway across the country, and automakers have a century of experience building and servicing vehicles powered by gas. But we aren't starting completely from scratch: At least we have natural gas pipelines crisscrossing the country, so the transition may not take as long as one might think.
To make the transition to a natural gas fleet of vehicles, there needs to be major investment in infrastructure and vehicle technology. And that's where I'm beginning to see some major movement.
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Manufacturers like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler are also getting in the game, albeit at a slow pace. Ford unleashed the Transit Connect, a taxi that can use a variety of fuel sources and is already operational in Los Angeles. GM is going to offer a bi-fuel model of the 2013 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra.
How the transition works
The initial transition to natural gas has focused on fleets like buses, airport vehicles, and other short-distance vehicles. Slowly, the revolution is moving to semi-trucks traveling nationally as the infrastructure builds out.
This business-oriented transition will likely continue through 2012, because routes are easier to define and fueling stations can be built based on where fleets need them. But as natural gas fueling stations become more prevalent, the barrier to entry for passenger vehicles will go down. In certain big cities like Los Angeles, there are enough stations to make a passenger vehicle viable and that will should begin influencing customer purchases because of the potential fuel-cost savings.
This way of developing the natural gas fuel industry may take longer than some would like, but what it also does is set a solid, financially sound footing for the industry. Unlike electric vehicles, which were in the media's eye and had yet to overcome challenges like rage anxiety, this will probably be a healthier way for natural gas to transition to wider-spread fuel use. It isn't a national focus yet, which allows the kinks to be worked out while the industry is still small.
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Fool contributor Travis Hoium does not have a position in any company mentioned. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.
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