Will Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles Boost These Automakers?

Natural gas is cheap, abundant, and relatively clean, which explains the manufacturing push by General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

Maxx Chatsko
Maxx Chatsko
Jul 29, 2014 at 7:55AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

The 2015 Bi-Fuel Chevy Impala may be coming to a dealership near you this summer. Source: General Motors Company.

It's not such a great time to be a shareholder in General Motors Company (NYSE: GM). Record-breaking recalls have added plenty of expenses and near-term uncertainty to the company's outlook. That could lead to reduced spending on future research and development projects, but the company still plans to go all-in on mass market compressed natural gas, or CNG, vehicles. Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) is placing big bets on the trend, too. In fact, the company now manufactures eight commercial vehicles that can run on natural gas fuel.

While multiple companies and government agencies are making massive investments to boost the nation's natural gas fueling infrastructure, both General Motors and Ford Motor Company are manufacturing dual fuel vehicles that are capable of running on gasoline and natural gas. That could boost their adoption and market share well before robust infrastructure is in place. Could CNG vehicles provide the growth avenue General Motors shareholders need to forget about its recall blunders and boost sales at Ford Motor Company?

Why go CNG?
There are a few reasons drivers may want to consider a vehicle with natural gas fueling capabilities for their next car or truck. First, CNG sells at a steep discount to gasoline and diesel fuels. The last quarterly report released by the U.S. Department of Energy in April showed that consumers paid an average of $2.15 per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) of CNG, compared to $3.97 for diesel (gasoline equivalent) and $3.65 for gasoline. Prices can fall even lower in regions swamped with natural gas. For instance, my hometown of Pittsburgh sports prices under $2 per GGE of CNG as of this writing.

Source: Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Reports.

Second, natural gas vehicles offer greater driving ranges when combined with gasoline fuel tank capabilities. Depending on the car or truck, CNG capabilities could increase a vehicle's driving range by over 200 miles! In fact, your fuel economy on natural gas is better than that on gasoline. Third, CNG has lower emissions than gasoline or diesel fuel. In other words, purchasing a vehicle that boasts the ability to run on natural gas fuels could be great for your wallet, help you travel further on a single tank (err, tanks), and lessen your impact on the environment.

Most CNG vehicles offered today target commercial truck fleets, but with the advantages stacking up in favor of CNG vehicles, that will soon change. Westport Innovations can convert gasoline trucks to run on natural gas fuels. Can General Motors and Ford Motor Company cash-in on the opportunity and expand to everyday vehicles?

Carefully targeted lineups

Source: General Motors Company.

General Motors has wisely stuck to its strengths for its initial lineup of Bi-Fuel CNG vehicles. First up are the wildly popular Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups, which recorded sales of 480,000 and 184,000 vehicles, respectively, in 2013. That set the highest sales watermark for the award-winning truck since 2007 -- immediately before the energy run-up in the summer of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession.

In an effort to foster continued growth for the truck series, the company is offering Bi-Fuel vehicles for every cabin configuration. The 2015 models will also sport a 36-gallon gasoline fuel tank and a 17-gallon gasoline equivalent CNG fuel tank, which together is more than double the fuel capacity of 2014 models. The rolling fuel depots will have a combined driving range greater than 650 miles!  

General Motors is also offering a CNG Chevy Impala sedan, which provides a rare opportunity for drivers looking to capture the benefits of natural gas fuels, but who don't need the functionality of a truck. The vehicle boasts an 18.5-gallon gasoline tank and 7.7-GGE CNG tank, which provide a combined driving range of 500 miles -- with 30% coming from low-cost, clean-burning natural gas fuel. Investors will want to keep an eye open for initial sales numbers in the second half of 2014 to gauge customer appetite. 

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company is set to clean-up the half-ton pickup market for CNG vehicles with its F-150 lineup. The natural gas-burning Ford F-150, sporting a 3.7-liter V6, will achieve a combined driving range of 750 miles, which beats out the Bi-Fuel Chevy Silverado by 100 miles. While the CNG F-150 didn't roll off the production lines until the end of November, the company still managed to sell 15,000 natural gas vehicles across all eight natural gas fuel-capable vehicles in 2013. That bested 2012 sales by 25%.

The Ford F-150 could be a big seller in the CNG market. Source: Ford Motor Company.

Trend or foe?

General Motors and Ford Motor Company are wise to invest in CNG vehicle manufacturing capacity. In addition to lowering fuel costs, expanding driving ranges, and lessening your impact on the environment; natural gas fuels can be easily transported through pipelines across the nation. That should aid the expansion and coverage of natural gas fueling stations, which drivers should expect to occur in lockstep with increased vehicle sales. To this Fool, the trend is certainly an investor's friend.