Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ford seeking converts with its F-150 pickup

Ford has set the stage for another growth spurt in the sales of alternative-fuel vehicles by offering a version of America's favorite ride - the F-150 pickup - that has been prepped for conversion to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Like the recent surge in the sales of plug-in electric vehicles, the increasing customer interest in CNG has been triggered by rising gasoline prices, which last week averaged $3.61 a gallon nationally for unleaded regular. While the sales of the electrics and CNG conversions are still a small part of the automotive market, they are growing. The sales of electrics more than doubled during the first half of 2013. Americans bought 41,447 plug-ins during that period, accounting for more than a third of all the electrics on the road.
Ford has set the stage for another growth spurt in the sales of alternative-fuel vehicles by offering a version of America's favorite ride - the F-150 pickup - that has been prepped for conversion to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Like the recent surge in the sales of plug-in electric vehicles, the increasing customer interest in CNG has been triggered by rising gasoline prices, which last week averaged $3.61 a gallon nationally for unleaded regular. While the sales of the electrics and CNG conversions are still a small part of the automotive market, they are growing. The sales of electrics more than doubled during the first half of 2013. Americans bought 41,447 plug-ins during that period, accounting for more than a third of all the electrics on the road. MORE COVERAGE Kia Forte surprisingly appealing States take the wheel on driverless cars Jon Coleman, a Ford technology manager, told me that last year's sales of Ford's predominantly commercial CNG-prepped vehicles - which now total eight - outstripped the previous three years. "With the addition of the F-150, we're looking to do 15,000 [CNG vehicles] in 2014," he added. Ford has the most CNG offerings, ranging from the little Transit Connect van to big trucks and Lincoln MKTs headed for limousine conversion. Chrysler sells a CNG version of its heavy-duty Ram pickup, and Honda builds a Civic powered by natural gas. The Ford F-150 conversions are aimed primarily at commercial fleet owners who have ready access to metropolitan-area refueling stations and are willing to pay the considerable conversion costs to save a bundle on fuel. Jerome Webber, AT&T's vice president for global fleet operations, said the use of CNG vehicles in recent years had allowed his company to substitute much cheaper natural gas for 7.7 million gallons of gasoline. "With the money saved using CNG, customers could start to see positive payback on their [conversion] investment in as little as 24 to 36 months," Ford's Coleman said. The F-150 conversion starts with a factory-installed $315 kit that allows the engine to burn CNG. The buyer then farms out the vehicle to a Ford-approved converter, who rigs it to run on CNG only, or either CNG or gasoline (a nice capability when you aren't near a CNG source). That conversion cost can run from $7,500 to $9,500 - but consider the savings engendered. Regular gas averaged $3.64 a gallon in Pennsylvania and $3.55 in New Jersey last week. An amount of CNG equivalent to a gallon of gasoline costs $2.07 nationally, $2.12 in Pennsylvania, and $2.15 in New Jersey. Shop around and you can do even better. Peco's Phoenixville station, for example, charges $1.99, according to CNGnow.com. (Home fueling pumps are available for those with gas service.) CNG is cleaner than gasoline as well as cheaper. Greenhouse gases come down 28 percent when you switch to CNG, according to the California Air Resources Board. While steady, the sales increases for CNG vehicles are a lot less dramatic than those of electrics. Nissan sold 225 Leaf electrics in June, four times what it sold in June 2012. A slow seller initially, the Chevrolet Volt sold even better in June: 2,698 units. That was a 60 percent increase over the previous June. Why? Again, fuel prices are key. Gasoline's $3.61/gallon nationally compares with $1.18 for a comparable amount of electrical energy. People also have become more comfortable with electrics, realizing they work fine in so many driving situations. And their prices are beginning to come down as their expensive batteries become cheaper and cheaper. Those tax rebates and attractive lease deals don't hurt sales, either.