If natural gas isn’t the true fuel of the future, it won’t matter too much because the Detroit Big Three’s latest offerings--“bi-fuel” pickups--will run on both compressed natural gas (CNG) and gasoline. Rising prices for gasoline and diesel, and falling prices for natural gas got them offering products, usually with the help of suppliers, and they unveiled them at the recent Work Truck Show in Indianapolis.
General Motors, Ram Trucks and Ford all announced CNG-gasoline systems for heavy pickups. This addresses “range anxiety” because CNG fueling stations are still rare in America. Ram puts the number at 1,500 while GM says it’s about 1,000. But there are plenty of gasoline stations, so the trucks would keep running if drivers can’t find CNG. And with two of the three products, gasoline is needed for the engines to even start.
One supplier, Westport Light Duty, declares that CNG is the best alternative to traditional fuels, and a CNG truck will cost far less to operate than hybrids or electric vehicles over a lifetime. Both of those still rely on expensive lithium-ion batteries which make upcharges very costly and difficult to recoup based on fuel savings alone. CNG now makes a good business case on its own, and without government subsidies that have been necessary to make hybrids and EVs affordable.
In principle there are many similarities among the three companies’ products, though each one’s system takes a slightly different form, primarily in the exact pickup models they’ll initially be offered in but also in the CNG systems. CNG will be the principal fuel chosen by the system. All have both gasoline and CNG gauges, but drivers will not be able to switch them from one fuel to another.
None of the products is cheap, with one priced about $10,000 over a gasoline-only truck and several thousand over a diesel. But because natural gas is cheap at $1.50 to $2.50 per gasoline-gallon-equivalent, or GGE, potential savings in fuel purchases could pay off the premiums in a few years. In recent days, gasoline and diesel have approached or exceeded $4 per gallon in many areas, and $5 in California.
The three builders’ bi-fuel systems all will use gasoline V-8s with hardened exhaust valves and valve seats, separate gas injectors and fuel lines, pressurized gas and conventional gasoline tanks, and electronic controls programmed to operate the systems. All will run primarily on CNG and when that tank is emptied, will automatically and “seamlessly” switch to gasoline.
All will run on gasoline only, but the natural gas tank should be refilled as soon as possible to save money on fuel. All lose some power and torque while running on natural gas, but drivers will hardly notice, the builders say.
Westport Light Duty, part of Westport Innovations that makes heavy duty diesel-based gas engines, is partnering with Ford in a bi-fuel system for SuperDuty F-250 and F-350 pickups. WiNG, for Westport Natural Gas, comprises CNG components added to freshly built Fords with specially prepped 6.2-liter V-8s. A WiNG engine will run primarily on CNG and switch to gasoline if the gas tank is empty. It will start on gasoline or CNG.
WiNGed trucks will come with Regular, Super and SuperCrew cabs, with short or long pickup beds, and with two- or four-wheel drive. Other configurations might be added later. The CNG tank is in a cabinet behind the cab, and the gasoline tank is below the bed, as usual. Westport says the CNG system’s weight is 200 pounds with tanks empty.
WiNG’s incremental price is $9,750, with a 32-gallon gasoline tank and a 14.4-gasoline-gallon-equivalent CNG tank. A 24-GGE tank is available for another $1,200. Fleet prices will be less. Using both fuels, range will be as much as 630 miles, executives said.
Starting this May, Westport will add the CNG equipment in a facility next to Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant east of Louisville. Production will ramp up gradually, and sales will be handled through certain Ford truck dealers, perhaps as many as 200, willing to train technicians to service and repair the bi-fuel trucks.
All parts will be stocked in one distribution center and overnighted to any dealer that needs them for repairs. This means any crippled truck will wait at least one night for the part to come in, and probably all weekend if a truck goes down on a Friday, not because the dealer didn’t happen to have a part in stock but because that part will always be sitting in a distant warehouse. If customers complain, this approach might be changed, Westport says.
Ram’s Factory Built System
Instead of farming out the work to a supplier, Chrysler’s Ram brand will manufacture a bi-fuel pickup in its own plant in Mexico. This will save several thousand dollars over a supplier-installed system, executives said, though they didn’t release the actual price.
The bi-fuel package was engineered with the help of Fiat, Chrysler’s parent and a major supplier of natural gas vehicles and equipment to Europe and other markets. It includes a gas-prepped 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that uses gasoline for start-up, so if the truck runs out of gasoline, it’s down – which a gasoline-only truck would be anyway, Ram execs pointed out. Then it switches to CNG until that’s exhausted, and switches back to gasoline.
The CNG tank, in a cabinet behind the cab, holds 18.2 GGEs and the gasoline tank, on the frame beneath the bed, is 8 gallons; Canadian customers can choose a 35-gallon gasoline tank. CNG-only range is 255 miles, and the backup gasoline supply extends that to 367 miles.
Ram initially offers only the bi-fuel option in just one pickup model: a four-wheel-drive 2500 Heavy Duty Crew Cab with an 8-foot-long bed. This is what natural gas groups identified as the most useful to potential users, who will want to get a work crew and materials to a job site, Ram executives said. If demand calls for other models, they might be added.
Chevy, GMC Bi-Fuelers
General Motors has also fingered one basic model for its bi-fueler: a 2500 HD Extended Cab, though it can be had with a short or long box and two- or four-wheel drive. It’ll be sold as a Chevrolet Silverado or GMC Sierra. The trucks will be produced in Indiana: They’ll emerge from GM’s Fort Wayne plant with a gas-prepped Vortec 6-liter V-8 and travel to nearby Union City, where IMPCO Automotive will install the CNG equipment.
GM people emphasize that this is not an “upfit,” because IMPCO is a Tier One supplier whose precise manufacturing processes are in synch with GM’s. IMPCO will install the Bosch CNG fuel system and mount the tanks in the bed. The tanks will be in special cabinet that’s attached to the frame, not the bed floor. The system has been rigorously tested for starting and running in very cold and hot temperatures and at high altitudes. And the truck has been crash-tested multiple times to ensure integrity of the gas system.
The Vortec engine starts on gasoline only and will run on either fuel; it will not start on CNG. Although CNG is the preferred fuel, the natural gas tank holds 17 GGEs and the gasoline tank holds 36 gallons; together they give a 650-mile range.
The CNG tank has an aluminum liner and a composite wrap for strength. The CNG system weighs 450 pounds, which is subtracted from the truck’s payload. It will tow 9,500 to 15,000 pounds. GM is now taking orders on the bi-fuel system, but had not finalized pricing at our press time. Production starts late this year.