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Can Natural Gas Save America's Highways?
The goal was pretty straightforward.
Drive from New York City to Detroit – just more than 600 miles – in a Ford F-250 and not use a single drop of gas; well, at least not of the unnatural kind most people put in their tank.
No, this big rig, which looked like a giant Ford billboard, would be powered by compressed natural gas.
CNG is all the rage again. Carmakers are looking for alternative ways to provide transportation that is cheaper, cleaner but still provides the same kind of power people need. According to the federal government, 87 percent of natural gas is produced in the U.S., it emits up to 40 percent less greenhouse gases, and has up to 90 percent less smog-producing pollutants.
And other than all of the stickers on this particular truck, it looked like any other F-250. The only difference was about 30 percent of the bed was taken up with a tank that could hold 3,600 pounds of CNG.
The beauty of any CNG vehicle is it operates nearly exactly the same way as their gas counterparts. CNG's are going to play a role in keeping internal combustion engines driving this nation 50 years from now. Sorry all of you electric fans – there's not going to be 1 million EVs on U.S. roads by 2015 or even 2020. Your time is coming, but not for a while.
But CNG hasn't only arrived, it's already been here and the energy equivalent to a gallon of unleaded ranges is half, ranging in price from $1.70 to $2.20.
Already, there are more than 100 different CNG types of vehicles available today in America, though only one, the Honda Civic, is available to the public from a dealership. The others are either buses, fleet vehicles or aftermarket converts to the CNG faith.
That, of course, should change judging how well this F-250 performed. Its smooth ride, excellent power and seamless change from CNG to gas make it an ideal candidate for someone who needs pickup capabilities, cheaper fuel and smaller carbon footprint.
Ford only charges $315 to make its 6.2-liter V-8 CNG capable. (This does not include the actual CNG tank or fuel lines, which costs thousands more, but does provide a bi-fuel manifold and hardened intake valves and valve seats.) It's a start.
But CNG on the highway remains much like the cast of Saturday Night Live: Not ready for prime time.
When I drove the CNG Civic in the past, I learned quickly about range anxiety. It's a true physical phenomenon where you watch the fuel gauge drop and your stomach churns as you try to remember that one Detroit station with a CNG pump. The only backup the Civic comes with is your cell phone to call a tow truck.
Fortunately, this F-250 runs on both CNG and regular gas. It switches so seamlessly from one to the other, I could never pinpoint which fuel I was running at any given time.
In order to use only CNG, I figured I could stop every couple hundred miles, fill up and be on my way. I downloaded two apps – CNG Fuel Finder and Alternative Fuel Locations – for my iPhone and thought this might help keep my stomach settled. Had my truck been in a pure CNG vehicle, those apps would have given me an ulcer.
I plotted my route to and then failed miserably. It wasn't me, it wasn't the truck, it wasn't even the inaccurate or unworkable apps. It was Interstate 80.
See, the list of CNG stations Ford provided for me required that my first stop be in Philadelphia. And while I adore the city of Brotherly Love, it's also 94 miles out of my way. The next stop along the way was in Williamsport, Penn. at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. The general public can't use that pump either.
Then, just as I was running out of fuel, according to the blinking blue lights on my dash, I made my way to a Uni-Mart near the highway that the CNG Finder said was a CNG station. When I got there, there was no gas station at all. Just a field greeted me and my fuel gauge started to say I was now running on petrol.
The rush of anxiety left me as I knew I had to go another 100 miles to State College and fill up there.
The F-250, it remains a great truck no matter what fuel powers it.
It's big, but drives small. Even through New York City's streets, it maneuvered well, weaving through traffic. At a few points, I think the truck's size gave me an advantage, allowing me to nose into a lane, intimidating a New York City driver.
The high riding position was also advantageous, providing me a chance to see past just the car in front of me. Making my way out of the City, I quickly found myself on Interstate 80. My CNG tank was about three-quarters full. As I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, I wondered if my truck was even allowed in there. I didn't stop to ask.
Along the open highway, even with the bed empty, the F-250 offers an excellent ride. Some pickups need a couple of pounds in the bed to smooth out the taut suspension, but the F-250 seemed right at home empty.
Additionally, the CNG Lariat model provides all of the creature comforts of most luxury cars. The only thing I'd suggest is providing a navigation system that locates real CNG fueling stations to make the ride complete.
But as I burned through six gallons of gas to find my way to the CNG pump, I couldn't help but enjoy the big hills of Pennsylvania. Even as I looked down at the fuel out reading between the speedometer and tachometer, I was pleased and how little fuel the truck was using. According to the readout, I still had 1,000 miles of range.
This, of course, was not true. And during the trip, it always felt a little dishonest. Kind of like vehicles that offer a silly "instantaneous" mileage that are equally dishonest. The Ford system does not account for the CNG miles. It simply assumes you have driven 150 miles on a single drop of gasoline, thus it says your hitting 99 mpg and have an unlimited range.
Obviously, Ford needs to rethink this. Disavowing responsibility is, frankly, irresponsible.
What the truck needs is a screen that monitors your CNG use and tells you the range you have left with the fuel. Then when the regular gas starts pumping, the real fuel economy numbers kick in.
No one likes something different, and filling up with CNG is different. The nozzle has to lock onto the tank, which is a small nozzle right next to the gas tank cap. Then, when you pull down the handle, there's a big whooshing sound that surprised me.
Other than that, it was absolutely normal. And that's one reason America could convert to CNG so quickly.
Fill-up time is only a few minutes and process. Walk in, tell the cashier you want to fill up on pump 15 and then whoosh.
From there, I plotted my next course, costing me about an hour of time because of the additional distance, but the filling station on the CNG Fuel Finder would allow me to make the trip the rest of the way home on CNG.
So I eventually made my way to Interstate 76, proud of myself for driving more than 400 miles on a scant 7 gallons of gasoline. According to Ford's own computer, I was averaging more than 100 miles per gallon.
But once again, I was let down with the app. When my blue dot on my phone met up with the red pin of the station, there was nothing; Just a ditch on a road through one of those small Ohio towns that are swallowed up by cornfields.
The CNG wasn't going to last much longer, and as far as I could tell, Toledo is CNG pump free, so I'd have to finish this trip the traditional way.
So I cruised on down those country roads of Ohio. Past barns and corn fields and the occasional cow as the shadows grew longer and the sun redder. The F-250 looked right at home along these roads, as I passed an occasional pickup heading the other way.
Eventually, those very same trucks my have a 3,600 PSI tank in their beds as well, I thought. It's the one alternative fuel that makes sense for things like pickups, which need power for all of the heavy lifting they do. And curtailing their emissions can lead to a much bigger impact on the environment.
All told, my trip of 654 miles burned through 16.6 gallons of gas, as well as $50 worth of CNG. The total trip costs about $100, which is still much less than a plane ticket, and there was no charge for my checked bag.
America still has a lot of infrastructure work to do if it wants CNG vehicles to make a real impact. But until then, natural gas vehicles will remain a quirky way to power a vehicle. Right now, it's not a serious mode of transportation.
But it will be, no doubt. It will be soon.
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