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Some Comments About the Car and Driver CNG Road Trip

In January 1999, I received a call from Dan Neil of Car and Driver magazine, who was getting ready to drive across the country in a bi-fuel compressed natural gas (CNG) Volvo V70 station wagon, using the alternative fuel as much as possible (but having a gasoline fuel system for a backup, which proved to be, ah, rather important). He wanted to talk to me about my own experience driving Clean Across America And Back in August 1998, and to ask for any pointers I could give to him and his copilot, Charles LeGrand. I referred them to Bill Fairbairn of the California Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV) Coalition, who had undertaken his own CNG-powered drive, Cleanest Across America, in May 1998, and who of course has a lot more contacts in the NGV industry than I do. This was particularly important, since the Car and Driver guys had only allowed themselves one week to plan their trip! Starting in North Carolina, they got as far as Nebraska before giving up, having experienced repeated difficulties in finding and gaining access to refueling stations pretty much the whole way. The sad story is told starting on page 110 of the April 1999 issue of the magazine.

While I certainly applaud them for trying, and I had sincerely hoped that they would have a positive experience to describe for the readers of the largest-circulation automotive magazine in the country (if not the world), I have to say that the question they set out to answer with their journey is quite a different one from the point that Bill Fairbairn, I, and others have tried to demonstrate, and any of us could have told them the answer in advance. To quote the article, they wanted to find out "does the available [CNG refueling] infrastructure offer U.S. drivers anything like the unfettered mobility they are used to, so that they may, say, drive coast to coast?" This question led them to make two fateful choices in how they attempted to answer it, the combination of which virtually guaranteed failure.

First, they wanted to make the trip in a "consumer" vehicle, and drive on CNG exclusively. Their choice of the bi-fuel Volvo, with about 120 miles range on CNG, rather than a dedicated van or pickup, or a Honda Civic GX or Ford Crown Victoria passenger car, all of which can have ranges in the vicinity of 300 miles, was based on the assumption that consumers would mostly prefer a bi-fuel passenger car if they were going to consider getting an NGV at all. Not a bad assumption, but handicapping themselves by accepting the smaller CNG range of a bi-fuel car (which, after all, has to save space for its gasoline tank) and then trying to drive only on CNG (as much as possible, anyway, and they did try pretty darn hard) misses the whole point of a bi-fuel car, and indeed the reason that most buyers would want one. A bi-fuel car can be refueled with CNG in the owner's familiar home territory, where he or she knows where to obtain the fuel easily, and then driven cross-country on gasoline if needed. Since most driving, like politics, is local, the vehicle would spend most of its time running on CNG, but the quality of the interstate CNG refueling infrastructure would be almost irrelevant to the question of "unfettered mobility" because of the car's gasoline capability. What those of us who have driven across the country in dedicated vehicles were trying to call attention to was the fact that the vehicles are "ready for prime time" in terms of reliability and performance, that the local refueling infrastructure in a lot of cities and regions across the country is "ready for prime time" for daily use by drivers residing in those areas, and that there are a lot more stations strewn across the country than most people think, so that with adequate planning you can drive long interstate distances. We aren't to the stage of "unfettered mobility" from coast to coast on CNG yet, least of all with only 120 miles range per fill-up; what advocates of NGVs would claim is that the nationwide infrastructure is closer to that stage than most people think, and in many localities and regions there already are enough refueling stations that the vast majority of driving could be done using CNG. With a bi-fuel vehicle to take care of trips outside one's home turf, a large fraction of gasoline use could be shifted over to CNG without fettering the mobility of U.S. drivers.

The second choice that the Car and Driver folks made in attempting to answer the question they asked was to allow themselves only a week for preparation. Now, I for one wouldn't attempt to drive across the country on gasoline with only a week's preparation, but I guess they have done enough of this kind of trip that it seemed a reasonably "normal" thing to do. However, given that if a CNG refueling station goes offline there may not be a lot of fallback options in the area, and given that access in an unfamiliar area is something that usually requires special arrangements with the fuel provider (only a minority of CNG refueling stations are set up so you can pay with cash or an ordinary credit card, rather than a local natural gas company's private card), I warned them that it would be best to call each and every place where they were planning on refueling, before they ever set out on the road. They didn't have time to do that, and sure enough, they ended up driving into the location of a refueling station in Nebraska that had been shut down for a few weeks, and locations in Chicago that had been shut down for years. This problem was compounded by an astonishingly bad piece of luck: the WWW refueling station locator of the Alternative Fuels Data Center, which Bill Fairbairn and I had found to be absolutely indispensible in planning our trips, was offline in January and February 1999! Instead, we found what the Car and Driver article describes as "a clunky search program" full of out-of-date information, a "placeholder" application that hadn't been used (or updated) for several years before our familiar friend was taken out of service for upgrading. The locating and mapping application that we had expected they would use has since come back online, and as promised it is better than ever, but this was too late for the Car and Driver trip.

Again, however, I would maintain that they were asking the wrong question. For the majority of driving, an NGV owner would be in familiar territory, with access to local refueling stations arranged once and for all at the time of acquisition of the NGV. Natural-gas providers are not at all reluctant to issue refueling cards for their stations; just with the ones I already have in hand, plus cash for use in Utah, I have a "radius of action" of hundreds of miles, from Los Angeles as far east as Denver. It only takes a little preparation to get access to a fueling station, but it does take preparation, and trying to do a whole country's worth in a week is just not realistic, nor would any NGV advocate claim it is. Again, though, a "real-world" NGV owner would need no preparation at all for most of his or her refueling, other than what had already been made when first buying the vehicle, and if the NGV was a bi-fuel setup then no additional preparation would be needed for a cross-country journey either. Given Car and Driver's logical conclusion that most consumers would be interested in a bi-fuel rather than a dedicated NGV, a better test of practicality would be for them simply to get a fuel card for local refueling in one of the many cities and regions where CNG is widely available, and then drive the car there in daily use for awhile. Based on my experience, I think they would conclude that there is no significant difference between the convenience of driving on CNG and on gasoline, in the "real world".

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new 16 March 1999