General Motors CEO Dan Akerson unveils a 2015 Chevrolet Impala that runs on compressed natural gas or gasoline. Akerson says, 'This approach takes range anxiety completely off the table.' (GM)
Washington — General Motors Co. announced Wednesday it will start selling a car that can run on compressed natural gas — but also has a backup gasoline engine to get drivers to the next fueling station. It is the automaker’s latest effort to sell more vehicles that run on the alternative fuel.
GM chairman and CEO Dan Akerson said in a speech in Washington that the automaker expects to produce a small number of the Chevrolet Impalas — less than a 1,000 in the first year — acknowledging it is “not very ambitious” but a first step. He said it would cost GM “a couple of thousand of dollars at least” more to produce the dual-fuel Impala.
He said GM’s CNG focus would remain trucks and vans in commercial and government fleets that can refill at central refueling stations. But he said the automaker could sell a “boatload” if the country had more refueling stations.
“We’re going to continue to push CNG,” Akerson told reporters after the event where GM showed off a prototype.
The United States has large reserves of natural gas, but few cars have been sold that run on it. Only Honda Motor Co. sells a car that runs on CNG — a version of the Honda Civic — but several automakers sell medium and heavy trucks and vans that run on the fuel. Honda sold a total of 3,000 CNG Civics in 2011 and 2012, and 1,345 through July this year, Kelley Blue Book said. Honda declined to release sales figures.
“Most of our customers are going to be commercial and government fleets, and selling 750 to 1,000 units in the first model year would be a home run,” Akerson said.
GM sells a bi-fuel version of its heavy trucks and CNG-powered Chevrolet Express vans. Last year, GM sold 1,400 CNG vehicles and has sold 3,500 so far this year.
Akerson says the U.S. needs more refueling infrastructure.
“Despite hundreds of millions of dollars of private-sector investment, CNG stations are far from ubiquitous,” Akerson said.
Today, there are about 1,200 nationwide and only about half are open to the public. This compares with more than 168,000 retail gasoline stations.
As a result, GM is giving the Impala a backup gasoline engine just like it does with its electric Chevrolet Volt. “To give the CNG infrastructure time to play catch up, we got creative and engineered two energy reservoirs for the Impala, just as we did for the Volt,” Akerson said. “This approach takes range anxiety completely off the table by offering 150 miles of range using CNG and an additional 350 miles on gasoline.”
Eric Ibara, director of residual value consulting for Kelley Blue Book, said the Impala should do well.
“We believe Chevrolet’s bi-fuel Impala will do well in California, Oklahoma, Texas and anywhere natural gas is being produced. There are a number of people driving older vehicles that have been converted to CNG, and they would likely jump at the chance to upgrade to an Impala with navigation, Bluetooth and a number of safety features that have only recently become available, not to mention the improved ride quality,” he said.
The price of CNG also is projected to remain low, especially compared to gasoline, which adds another factor to entice people to switch. “There is a lot of buzz around CNG right now,” Ibara said. “With more infrastructure, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increasing number of CNG vehicles on the road.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama announced a $30 million Energy Department research grant to boost the number of vehicles running on natural gas. Congress has repeatedly considered new incentives for CNG vehicles.