Ford Motor Co. will offer a natural gas option for its 2014 F-150 pickup truck models, turning drivers of America’s most popular vehicle into potential consumers of the low-cost fuel.
The option, scheduled to be announced Wednesday, will add a major prospect for consumers hoping to use natural gas to fuel cars and light-duty trucks, since only one such vehicle — the Honda Civic Natural Gas — is available now for direct sales from an automaker to U.S. customers.
“There is the potential that we may look back on this launch as when natural gas really became a mass-market fuel for retail customers as well as fleet customers,” said Jon Coleman, sustainability and technology manager for Ford, in an interview with FuelFix.
Though no one — not even Ford — is predicting large sales for the natural gas versions of the F-150, the model may draw particular interest in Texas — the nation’s top producer of natural gas and No. 1 buyer of pickup trucks.
And Ford’s F-series, of which the F-150 is the most popular model, has long been the top selling car line in America.
Ford sold about 367,000 F-series trucks in the first half of the year, according to data from trade publication Automotive News. Toyota’s Camry, the top-selling sedan, notched about 207,000 sales in the first half of 2013, according to the figures.
“Texas is such a huge truck market. By a long shot it’s the No. 1 truck market in the country,” said David Whiston, an analyst for investment research firm Morningstar in Chicago. “So if there’s a lot of demand for natural gas and pickups in Texas alone, it’s not surprising to see Ford make this move.”
In Texas, where natural gas wells dot the landscape, pride may drive some buyers who want to consume the local fuel, said Lynn Lyon, director of fuel market development for oil and natural gas producer Pioneer Natural Resources.
“There’s a pride in energy production and the fact that we have been able to have scientific advancements that make this available,” Lyon said.
Domestic natural gas has declined in price as technology has unlocked supplies from once-inaccessible formations.
Pioneer runs 200 trucks on natural gas, enjoying “exceptional pricing” because it produces the resource, Lyon said.
“We saved $80,000 last month on about 200 trucks so it’s a great business opportunity for us,” she said.
A vehicle running on natural gas also emits fewer greenhouse gases than other fossil fuel options.
But Coleman said lower costs are the main attraction, with natural gas costing as much as $2 less for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.
Ford isn’t the only brand in natural gas trucks. Other car makers have sold trucks with natural gas options in heavier models and in limited quantities, mainly to commercial users.
Individual motorists also can convert most vehicles to run on natural gas, although the conversions may void manufacturers’ engine warranties.
But the Ford models, which buyers will order to their specifications, will be delivered to dealerships and covered by the company’s warranties, said Dick Cupka, Ford’s product development sustainability program manager.
Ford will offer its 2014 F-150s with a $250-$350 option to come from the factory “prepped” for natural gas and related fuels including butane and propane.
Buyers then will pay for a post-factory conversion costing $7,500 to $9,500 before the vehicle arrives at a dealership, Coleman said.
The vehicles will be available in a dedicated natural gas version or a bifuel option, which could run on either gasoline or natural gas, according to Ford.
The starting price for a base level F-150, without any add-ons or conversions, is about $24,000.
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While the up-front costs for the natural gas option significantly inflate the purchase price of an F-150, many truck owners drive 30,000 to 60,000 miles per year, Cupka said. Fuel cost savings could offset the higher purchase prices in as little as two years, he said.
Ford expects the most interest in the new truck option from businesses with fleets.
Nonetheless, for individual consumers the F-150 will be the most accessible natural gas car besides the Civic, said Richard Kolodziej, president of the advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.
“It attracts a whole different population,” Kolodziej said.
This isn’t Ford’s first effort to reach non-commercial motorists with a natural gas option. The company released a natural gas version of the Crown Victoria in the 1990s, but consumer interest quickly faded and the model was shelved.
In recent years, as businesses sought ways to lower their vehicle costs, Ford and other manufacturers have rolled out natural gas options.
Most were typically for heavy-duty use, large vehicles marketed to businesses including Verizon, UPS, Fedex, AT&T, Waste Management, Ryder, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola and others.
As those offerings grew, along with interest in natural gas, so did inquiries about the F-150, Ford’s Coleman said.
“The most common question I’ve been asked over the last two years is when are you doing an F-150?,” Coleman said. “So we don’t have a number on what the demand is or a percentage, all we know is that customers have been asking for it which is why we are bringing it to market.”
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Still, natural gas vehicles are not likely to gain mass popularity any time soon, said Phil Gott, senior director of long range planning for information and research firm IHS Automotive.
“It might help Ford gain a greater share of the fleet market, but remember the engine’s no good unless you have natural gas available,” Gott said. “And it’s not exactly convenient.”
There are around 1,300 natural gas refueling stations nationwide, about half of which are accessible to the public, Kolodziej said.
That number is growing, but it will take time, said Ken Nicholson, vice president of the central region for Clean Energy Fuels Corp, which owns 360 natural gas refueling stations nationwide including three in Houston.
“You just have to know where they are,” Nicholson said, adding that mobile device apps and route planning can help. “You don’t have to have one on every corner.”
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