Westport And GM To Develop Natural Gas EnginesBy Danny King July 7, 2011
General Motors has reached an agreement with Vancouver-based natural-gas engine maker Westport Innovations to develop natural-gas engine components for the automaker's light-duty vehicles, indicating that GM is looking to expand development of alternative powertrains beyond electric-drive vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt. Westport, which employes 15 in Farmington Hills, MI, will open a new technical center in the state to house those working with GM on CNG (compressed natural gas) engine development, Westport said in a statement last week.
GM spokesman Dan Flores declined to disclose any timeframe, specific types of engines or vehicle models being targeted or investment-dollar amounts. Flores did tell AutoObserver that the effort likely will include engines for personal-use vehicles and not just for the commercial-vehicle sector that makes up almost all of the current U.S. natural-gas vehicle market. GM last year started offering CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG) versions of its GMC Savannah and Chevrolet Express heavy-duty vans, though those vehicles, which are targeted towards fleet operators, are being converted by a third-party powertrain maker. "We think they have expertise in CNG that can add to our expertise in the internal combustion engine," said Flores. "This is something that widens our approach to continue developing advanced-propulsion technologies." Westport officials didn't respond to a request for comment.
Lower Cost, Emissions
GM and Westport are pitching natural-gas as a way to cut both greenhouse-gas emissions and foreign-oil dependency. Westport estimated that 97 percent of nautral gas is sourced from North America and that the natural gas cuts emissions relative to conventional gasoline- and diesel-fueled internal-combustion engines by as much as 20 percent. Additionally, natural gas costs about half as much as gasoline and diesel, although the high price of installing CNG-fueling stations has been a barrier to broader adoption, according to Pike Research Senior Analyst Dave Hurst.
As of June 15, there were 889 compressed natural gas (CNG) stations and 44 liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations in the U.S., compared to about 2,600 propane stations, almost 2,400 E85 stations and 2,102 publicly accessible electric-vehicle charging stations, according to the U.S. Energy Department's Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center (AFDC). There are about 125,000 gasoline stations in the U.S. "[GM] always had the philosophy that engines are their core technology, and they don't like to farm out stuff, so for them to team up with Westport to bring out a GM-branded (CNG) engine isn't too much of a surprise," Hurst said in an interview. "The cost of the fuel is significantly lower, but people are just concerned about being able to find it, and there's just not the awareness of it amid the push towards electric drive."
Fewer than 12,000 CNG vehicles will be sold in the U.S. this year, compared to about 160,000 in Europe, according to Pike Research. Still, U.S. CNG-vehicle sales will almost triple to around 33,000 vehicles in 2016, the company projects. In fact, in February, Chrysler Group LLC's Ram brand manager Fred Diaz told Bloomberg News that the company also is considering CNG powertrains for the Ram lineup. Italy's Fiat SpA, which now owns 52 percent of Chrysler, has an 80-percent share of the natural-gas passenger-car market in Europe and an almost 55 percent share of the light truck market.
Few CNG Vehicles In U.S.
Still, the only production CNG-powered car in the U.S. is the Honda Civic GX (left), which sells in minimal numbers. That car earlier this year was crowned the greenest vehicle sold in the U.S. for the eighth consecutive year by non-profit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, beating out both the Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Westport, whose sales for the fiscal year ending March 31 rose 22 percent from a year earlier to $148.1 million, teamed up with U.S. heavy-duty truck engine maker Cummins Engine Co. in 2001 to form a joint venture to make heavy-duty natural-gas engines. Cummins Westport earlier this year was awarded a $3.6 million contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to make a 11.9-liter natural-gas engine to be used for trash and Class-8 over-the-road trucks.
Westport and GM tout the environmental benefits of CNG engines by citing lower greenhouse-gas emissions, but some environmentalists have questioned those benefits. Natural gas production in the U.S. has jumped in recent years largely because of the new drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand and other materials are pumped at high pressure to crack the shale formation that traps much of the country's natural gas. Many environmentalists charge that fracturing pollutes groundwater. GM's Flores maintained that the automaker is increasing its commitment to more ecologically friendly engines, though declined to comment specifically on the issue of natural-gas extraction.