Natural gas as an interim fix
Almost every car manufacturer has had to "pick a side" when it comes to alternative fuel options, looking for ways to divest from a reliance on regular gas. Mercedes, for instance, has put its money on diesel, while Toyota has taken the hybrid approach, and BMW is banking on hydrogen fuel cells.
Fiat, meanwhile, is looking to back compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquid propane as its interim solution of choice. Cheap and readily available, liquid propane is the same stuff used to power most gas barbecues, and it has natural reserves predicted to last for well over 100 years. It provides 23 percent fewer CO2 emissions compared with gasoline, offers the same performance, and is economically sustainable.
Fiat is looking for ways to maximize the storage of liquid propane on board its vehicles, with the CRF re-examining tank technology to see whether a dual fuel option, including both regular and natural gas, is feasible and cost-efficient. As it turns out, such a system would require very little retrofitting, with very few modifications to the engine needed. As such, it would be cheap, with almost no development costs involved. On the other hand, despite the savings of not having to re-engineer its engines, Fiat would, in a way, be taking a step back, using old technology for a new fuel approach.
There is also a distinct lack of filling stations for natural gas and low incentive for gas-rich markets like the US to use it.
Despite the various pros and cons, one thing remains clear. Fiat does not want to be left behind. “We are providing an evolution of the features of the car and better performance,” said Re Fiorentin, noting the importance of decarbonizing the emissions from cars, improving their safety, and ensuring their affordability.
The center is also actively working with fuel and infrastructure providers, and looking for other interim solutions, with a view to electric cars as an end goal. At the moment, however, Re Fiorentin doesn’t see the electric car as a short-term eventuality.
“The electric car still has some sustainability problems, not from the environmental point of view but from the social and economic point of view, because the ranges are too limited, recharging times are too long, and cost too high,” he said. “The challenge is to remain competitive in a market that has become more and more aggressive. We need very skilled people. People who know a discipline and know how that discipline integrates with others.”
I think the statement "There is also a distinct lack of filling stations for natural gas and low incentive for gas-rich markets like the US to use it" says it all. Regardless of which fuel choice an automobile maker wants to gets behind, fuel distribution infrastructure and price (supply and demand) continue to be a large part of the bottom line.
As gas prices go up and consumers continue to demand refueling convenience, the next challenger to gasoline will emerge. Obviously human safetly will play a big part in the selection process, but one of the biggest decision criteria will also be ease of refueling and cost.
CNG has been used on indoor vehicles, like forklifts, for years, but performance under a wide number of operating conditions is not that critical to a forklift. It's safe to say that engineers would have to spend several years learning how to properly burn CNG in an automobile. More than anything else, I wonder about safety. Gasoline is only under pressure after the fuel pump, while CNG would be under pressure during storage and along the entire length of the fuel system. There are some advantages to CNG being a gas rather than a liquid, but the whole system being under pressure is a little disturbing.
I know Fiat is a staple in Europe and not so well known in the United States, that is until a year or so ago when they made a concerted effort to get dealerships here and up their advertising (any recall the J. Lo ads?).
There are quite a few fiats cruising around my area and I have to say, the cars are adorable. But as far as driving an alternative vehicle powered on propane gas (the same stuff that runs my BBQ), I'm not so keen. I get nervous sticking the tanks in my car to go get a refill, let alone using the fuel source to fill my car tank. I think the industry would have to spend some time and money educating people like myself to get over the fear of propane as being highly combustible.
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