4th April 2019

Amidst the plug-in obsession, do niche alternative fuels like CNG have a future?

While plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and pure EVs tend to dominate automotive news and discussions, their adoption will remain unfeasible for swathes of society for at least a good few years, until prices match or perhaps even eventually undercut internal combustion engine models, rural recharging infrastructure improves and other factors become more conducive.

Even one of electric cars’ chief advocates shares this view, Toddington Harper the CEO of Gridserve telling TU Automotive1 in a fascinating interview that EVs are “certainly suitable for enthusiasts and are becoming increasingly mainstream but there are still issues that mean it’s not as straightforward”, before essentially asserting that they will remain niche products.

Away from the more technologically-advanced and typically electricity-powered monikers emerging from OEMs, how are certain countries around the globe responding to other alternative vehicular fuel sources, perhaps perceived as even more niche, to address the universal need and desire to move away from traditional, solely petrol or diesel-fuelled cars?

Hydrogen deserves a brief mention

Hyundai’s brave introduction of the Nexo hydrogen fuel cell SUV is to be lauded, tipped to deliver a 400-mile zero-emissions range backed by recharging in around 5 minutes – credentials that embarrass many EVs. But its £60,000 price-tag again places it out of reach for the majority of business and private motorists, and the UK’s hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is in its infancy with fewer than 20 stations currently online and most of them located in the south*.

Bioethanol uptake in parts of Europe and the States

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA)** identifies that alternatively-powered vehicles (APV) comprised 8.6% of the market in Q4 2018, which is still considerably higher than the 2.7% share electrically-chargeable cars occupied.

Over the last few days, Ford has been revealing its plug-in and electric vehicle strategy, which will include new Kuga and Puma models among others2, but only a short while ago in February, the manufacturer launched a Flexifuel version of the current generation Kuga SUV for the French and Swedish markets.

Fleet Europe attributed this to motorists in France increasingly turning their backs on diesel just like they are in the UK and other parts of Europe, and developing an appetite for fuelling their cars with sustainable ethanol-E85 (bioethanol), which costs roughly half the price.

Authorities in France and Sweden continue to actively encourage the adoption of Flexifuel models, Ford’s aforementioned Kuga factory-modified at its plant in Valencia, Spain, and configured to emit up to 40% less CO2 than its diesel counterpart. The French government has even recently approved kits3 to convert petrol engines of other cars to be able to run on E85.

In technical terms, the latest Euro 6 engines are more sympathetic to being fuelled with E85 after they’ve been converted, due to the fuel’s corrosive nature and sugar beet origins, leaving many Euro 3-to-5 cars requiring additives.

The Kuga is perhaps surprisingly also sold in the U.S in Flexifuel guise already, but it’s unlikely that the UK will develop even a modest interest in this alternative fuel, partly due to image and more tangibly due to lack of infrastructure.

VAG appears to believe in CNG

The family members of Europe’s leading car-maker4, Volkswagen Group, clearly haven’t been placing all their eggs in the plug-in and electric basket, and maintain a growing degree of confidence in compressed natural gas (CNG) as worthy of inclusion in various model ranges.

In February, VW announced that it has overhauled its natural gas engines for the Polo and Golf TGI variants5, adding a third gas tank that opens up the potential to travel up to 60km further, the Polo’s total theoretical gas range cited as 368km before the backup petrol tank would be evoked.

Volkswagen VW CNG TGI BlueMotion gas

NGV Global News, a publication focussing on the natural gas sector, reported in late March that, following SEAT’s full acquisition of the Madrid-based car-sharing firm Respiro, the Spanish part of the VAG family has incorporated over 170 CNG Leon cars into the fleet6.

Like many other cities across Europe and indeed the world, the Spanish capital introduced a pollution-combatting measure called Madrid Central7 in late 2018, essentially forming a low-emissions zone precluding diesel vehicles registered prior to 2006 along with pre-2000 petrol vehicles. The aim is to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels by up to 40% by 2020, and SEAT’s combination of CNG plus car-sharing is certainly a step in the right direction.

Further afield, compressed natural gas is reported to be poised to form around 50% of vehicle sales in India8 by 2030 as a result of sustained government support including all-important CNG infrastructure, while Italy9 saw a 60% increase in CNG registrations in 2017, with VAG again a significant driver, offering the SKODA Octavia, Audi A3 and other models with the fuel that admittedly remains niche in the UK.

According to Autocar10 magazine, over 20 million vehicles worldwide are powered by CNG, which has the advantage of being created as a by-product of refining oil, but it can’t be compressed like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) can, so CNG-fuelled vehicles require a larger tank to be fitted.

The solar-powered car coming in 2020

Solar power for cars may not sound especially feasible in the UK and other countries that typically enjoy fewer weeks of sunlight than some parts of the world, but we were excited to learn at the conclusion of last year that Netherlands-based firm Lightyear, described as a scale-up and employing around a hundred staff, is planning on launching an all-wheel drive solar-powered family car11 in 2020.

Lightyear will aptly badge its debut model ‘One’ and hopes that a single charge of the car’s battery courtesy of the sun will equip it to cover around 500 miles. The firm’s website features a calculator enabling potential adopters to estimate what percentage of their annual motoring could potentially be powered by the sun’s energy, with London reportedly coming out at close to 12,000 miles or 41% of annual mileage. Unlike the 54 times per year it’s claimed that a Tesla Model S P11D will likely require plugging in, Lightyear reckons the One will only need half the frequency to offer an even more favourable range.

We’ll have to wait and see what materialises but this remarkable car sounds likely to become a production reality albeit on a small scale, and it’s highly encouraging that major leasing financier and mobility pioneer Leaseplan has joined Lightyear on the project12.

Water explored as a fuel for developing countries

H2O, too, may even become a viable fuel source for vehicles, with students from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee having developed the prototype of a zero-emissions car whose batteries can derive their power from water in conjunction with an aluminium plate13. The promoted range of 1,000km on a single charge sounds impressive, but having to replace the aluminium plate every time this distance has been covered sounds prohibitive. However, the Log9 Materials incubator behind this concept is hopeful that once the prototype reaches production, replacement costs and time will reduce, potentially enabling this car to play a small but positive role in addressing India’s sharply-rising fuel prices.

It’s clear that plug-in cars aren’t yet the definitive answer even for highly-developed countries, let alone less affluent regions of the world where vehicles numbers can be prolific yet fuel prices high, so it’s encouraging that the automotive industry’s largest car-makers are taking a multifaceted approach.


1. https://www.tu-auto.com/evs-likely-to-remain-niche-products/
* https://www.carkeys.co.uk/news/why-the-hyundai-nexo-will-be-a-strong-ev-rival-in-2019
** https://www.acea.be/press-releases/article/fuel-types-of-new-cars-diesel-23.6-electric-33.1-in-fourth-quarter-of-2018
2. https://www.fleeteurope.com/en/new-energies/europe/features/france-and-sweden-get-ford-kuga-flexfuel-runs-e85-bioethanol
3. https://www.connexionfrance.com/Practical/Transport/Government-approves-first-French-black-boxes-to-convert-petrol-engined-cars-to-run-on-E85-bioethanol
4. https://www.transportenvironment.org/press/european-carmakers-invest-seven-times-more-ev-production-china-home
5. https://www.volkswagen-newsroom.com/en/polo-tgi-3503
6. http://www.ngvglobal.com/blog/seat-adds-173-cng-model-to-its-car-sharing-fleet-0322
7. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/nov/30/its-the-only-way-forward-madrid-bans-polluting-vehicles-from-city-centre
8. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/auto/auto-news/cng-likely-to-make-up-50-of-vehicle-sales-by-2030-on-govts-infrastructure-push-report/articleshow/66684485.cms
9. https://europe.autonews.com/article/20180630/ANE/180619948/cng-car-sales-set-to-rise-on-tougher-emissions-rules
10. https://www.autocar.co.uk/slideshow/16-different-fuels-could-power-your-car#5
11. https://electrek.co/2018/12/17/lightyear-partners-with-leaseplan-nl-to-deliver-first-awd-solar-powered-family-car/
12. https://www.drivingelectric.com/news/790/lightyear-one-dutch-solar-electric-car-coming-2020
13. https://www.financialexpress.com/auto/car-news/cars-fuelled-by-water-aluminium-developed-in-india-all-about-iits-new-innovation/1346471/