Taxis running on compressed natural gas have been in use for decades in Japan’s cities. They are clean, quiet and to the surprise of visiting New Yorkers – meticulously maintained. Now there is a mini-movement of sorts underway in the U.S. as taxpayer subsidies and rising gasoline prices are increasing the demand for conversions of conventional gasoline engines to run on compressed natural gas. CNG is a fuel that has been in use in the U.S. for decades as well, but mostly in industrial or commercial applications.
Ford Motor now has orders for CNG Transit Connect Taxis from companies in Las Vegas, St. Louis, Boston, Chicago and Hartford. Since it’s illegal to run CNG through the Hudson and East river tunnels in New York City, one of the largest markets for taxicabs is eliminated.
Nonetheless, CNG fuel is attractive because of its price – less than $2 gallon on a national average – and its cleaner burning properties, which can result in a 30% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection agency. As a bonus about 85% of the CNG used in the United States is produced domestically.
Offsetting these positive attributes is the need for expensive and bulky fuel tanks where CNG is stored and distributed at a pressure of 2,900 to 3,600 psi. Range is also limited because of the size of the vehicle tank.
“The ability to convert the Transit Connect to CNG is a big driving force for us,” said J.J. Bell, vice president of Las Vegas-based Whittlesea Blue Cab, which has ordered Transit Connect Taxis powered by CNG. “We are converting more and more of our fleet to this alternative fuel.”
The rising interest in CNG is prompted in part by taxpayer subsidies. Government incentives such as rebates or tax credits are prompting fleet owners such as Bill Scalzi, owner of Metro Taxi of West Haven, Conn. to buy or convert their vehicles to run on CNG at reduced rates.
For example, the federally funded Clean Cities Petroleum Reductions Program is providing $300 million in funding to regional projects across the United States. One project is the Connecticut Clean Cities Future Fuels Project, which partially covers the costs of converting a vehicle to CNG. That project plans to provide funding for a total of 264 alternative-fuel vehicles.
“Without the help of the government program I wouldn’t have been able to purchase so many CNG-powered Transit Connect Taxis at one time,” Scalzi said. He has 20 Transits on order. “I like the Transit Connect Taxi for its spacious passenger area and cargo capacity, so the government assistance was timely.”
The incentives also are helping to build CNG fueling stations. Nearly 1,000 CNG fueling stations are now spread across the United States. As a result, cities such as Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis soon will have their first public CNG stations.
Honda is the only automaker currently selling a dedicated CNG-powered vehicle designed and manufactured for retail sale in the United States. The 2011 Civic GX achieves an EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy of 24/36 miles per gasoline-gallon equivalent and is the only vehicle certified by the EPA to meet both Federal Tier 2-Bin 2 and ILEV zero evaporative emission certification standards. The Civic GX is priced at about $26,000. However, GX sales are so small that Honda has delivered about 11,000 since its 1998 model year introduction.