Alternative drive: do natural gas cars have a future??

Alternative drive: Do natural gas cars have a future?. White compact car on the road: the Seat Leon is also available as a CNG variant. (Source: dpa/Volkswagen AG)

One electric premiere after the next: the charging cable is increasingly becoming a lifeline for the ailing automotive industry – and e-mobility almost seems to be commonplace already. But all the experts agree that the turnaround will not come so quickly.

Even if, in five, ten or fifteen years, every second car were to be powered by a battery, this would mean that in germany alone, more than a million internal combustion vehicles would continue to be sold each year. "We must therefore continue to work on this with great vigor in order to reduce emissions, explains VW spokesman peter weisheit.

Natural gas drive as a possible alternative to diesels and gasoline engines

Synthetic fuels will come sooner or later. And more and more new catalytic converter technologies are cutting emissions from conventional gasoline and diesel engines. But these changes are also bringing an older alternative back into focus, one that was recently pushed out of the spotlight by electric cars: the natural gas drive.

"Natural gas vehicles undoubtedly have a good reputation as a clean alternative to diesels and gasoline engines, says andreas radics of the strategy consulting firm berylls in munich. "Because the combustion of natural gas or compressed natural gas (CNG) produces less nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. And they produce practically no soot particles at all."

Higher purchase price is quickly recouped

In addition, natural gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel: because the fuel is tax-privileged until at least 2026, the additional purchase price is quickly recouped.

CNG models are generally designed as bivalent units and still have a small gasoline tank on board. As soon as the natural gas is used up, the electronics automatically switch to liquid fuel, thus closing the existing supply gaps in the CNG network.

Although radics also explains that the CNG infrastructure in germany could be expanded, because there are around 15 times more conventional filling stations than those for natural gas, there is still a lot of work to be done. However, natural gas offers advantages over all other alternative drives, especially in terms of range, says the expert. Some models can travel up to 700 kilometers.

Natural gas has been more popular before

The natural gas drive is anything but new and has been much more popular in the past. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, when electric cars were at best a distant vision, numerous manufacturers began to make the necessary conversions.

Today, on the other hand, CNG has disappeared into the niche again: in germany, it is only the VW Group that is still proclaiming this technology. But with power: Group CEO herbert diess has promised almost 20 such vehicles, and most of the brands have signed up to the program. The new golf, for example, is also to be available with a CNG drive, diess announced in may.

VW wants to push the number of CNG vehicles in germany to one million cars – the network of filling stations is also expected to grow strongly in the next few years. To put this in perspective: according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, at the beginning of 2019 around 80.000 natural gas vehicles registered in germany. This corresponds to a share of 0.2 percent of the total passenger car population.

Display in the dashboard: Two fill levels - Most natural gas cars still have a small gasoline tank on board as a reserve. (Source: dpa/Volkswagen AG)

Display in the dashboard: two fill levels – most natural gas cars still have a small gasoline tank on board as a reserve. (source: volkswagen AG/dpa)

Trend with downsides

For business consultants radics, the fact that manufacturers such as VW are once again relying more heavily on CNG is a wise strategy: this would enable the EU’s CO2 fleet targets to be met even if e-mobility were to establish itself less quickly than hoped.

But this trend has its downside, says radics: for manufacturers, because it ties up valuable resources that are not available for e-mobility or hydrogen technology. And for the environment, because although natural gas causes less CO2 emissions than fossil fuels, it cannot be climate-neutral.

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"In the medium term, natural gas can ensure the continued existence of the internal combustion engine as a clean fuel. But in the long term, it will therefore not be able to hold its own against new forms of drive.", according to radics. In any case, driving bans are not an issue for natural gas cars.

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