Americans are open to natural gas powered vehicles. In a recent TechnoMetrica survey, 70% of Americans said that they are familiar with natural gas as a motor fuel and nearly half of those who are aware would consider buying a vehicle which runs on natural gas.
These days natural gas costs about $2 a gallon compared to $4 a gallon for gasoline.
The outlook for natural gas vehicles in the global market is strong with the number of vehicles expected to reach 28.7 million units by 2015.
Volatility in oil prices, economic aid by governments, technological innovations, interest in cleaner vehicles and a sturdy demand in developing countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific rim, have helped to boost the global demand.
An elevated sensitivity regarding nuclear energy in the aftermath of the recent crisis in Japan and climate change chatter attributed to the burning of gasoline and coal also help natural gas look increasingly attractive.
In the U.S., there are 150,000 natural gas vehicles on the road, mostly fleet autos and buses.
In the past, the industry slighted natural gas vehicles because the U.S. had a low supply of this fuel. Now, with the discovery of vast fields of natural gas deposits, which are estimated to last for the next 100 years, interest has ticked up. The automobile industry is starting to take notice of the merits of natural gas.
While all the gasoline alternatives have their drawbacks, natural gas could be a very attractive option.
First, it is abundant in the U.S. and gives off a great deal of energy when it burns.
Second, a vehicle designed to run on natural gas is clean and has few emissions with lower levels of harmful byproducts.
Third, it is quite safe. Since it is lighter than air, it will dissipate in an accident with no flames and no run-off into streams. A natural gas vehicle typically has a stronger and sturdier gas tank, since it is a pressure vessel.
Fourth, using natural gas in vehicles will decrease U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
Further, the new stringent federal and state emission regulations will force auto manufacturers to look for new ways to fuel their cars, and natural gas does offer lower emission levels.
Granted, the automobile industry has to climb a few hurdles, but they are doable.
Natural gas vehicles have a limited, smaller trunk space and cost more. There are few refueling stations. It costs four times more to deliver natural gas than gasoline or diesel fuel since stations supplying natural gas take up more space.
And auto companies are one of the hardest hit industries in this recession. Not the ideal time to make infrastructure investment for factories to make natural gas vehicles.
Auto manufacturers saw poor results in the past in their investments in natural gas vehicles and tend to think they're appropriate only for niche applications and might lack wide public acceptance.
However, with growing public interest and concern for the environment, this attitude could change.
Natural gas vehicles for personal use are sold in California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma. Honda sells the Civic GX, a natural gas-powered vehicle in the U.S. market. Honda sold 1,600 cars last year and is about to run out of its 2011 model. The carmaker plans to sell nationwide by the end of next year.
Chrysler's controlling shareholder, FIAT, is the world's leader in producing cars and trucks that run on natural gas and, therefore, Chrysler is in a good position to begin producing natural gas cars. Chrysler announced that it will manufacture natural gas vehicles in 2017.
Today, the public is perfectly happy to continue driving gasoline-powered cars, in spite of the relatively high price of gasoline.
But, in order to reach the higher fuel economy and reduced emission levels of the future, manufacturers will need to sell more alternate fuel vehicles.
To succeed, the automotive industry needs to embark on a major educational effort to further educate the public to the advantages of natural gas and natural gas cars.
• Mayur is president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which directs the IBD/TIPP poll that was the most accurate in the last two presidential elections.