|An earlier prototype of the VPG natural-gas taxi, at the New York Auto Show in 2007.|
Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the leading provider of natural gas (CNG and LNG) for transportation in North America, has joined an investment group providing funding to help launch a new, natural gas vehicle made in the US for taxi and paratransit use. Clean Energy committed a $10-million investment in an overall $160-million equity financing for OEM Vehicle Production Group LLC, led by Perseus LLC, a merchant bank and private equity fund management company.
Separately, Clean Energy’s co-founder, T. Boone Pickens, has committed a $10-million investment to the funding package. Pickens recently launched the “Pickens Plan”, which calls for developing windpower to displace the 22% of electricity currently produced by natural gas, thereby freeing that natural gas up for use as a transportation fuel.
VPG is working with General Motors through VPG’s on-highway integrator Powertrain Integration LLC. Marketing, technical, and infrastructure logistical support for the CNG model will be provided by Clean Energy Fuels Corp. The vehicle will be assembled by AM General LLC, in Mishawaka, Indiana, and will employ a front-engine, rear-wheel drive architecture which includes a body-on-frame structure. Vehicle production launch is projected for the first quarter of 2010.
The vehicle includes an integrated automatic ramp that will provide quick and easy access for individuals who use wheelchairs, motorized scooters and other mobility devices. Originally introduced as the “Standard Taxi”, VPG’s vehicle has undergone design and functional enhancements based on input from the marketplace.
VPG also has marketing relationships with MV Transportation (MV), the largest private provider of paratransit services and the largest privately-held transportation contracting firm in the United States, and The Motion Group of Companies (MGC) in Canada, under which MV and MGC will sell vehicles into municipal and commercial paratransit fleets. It is anticipated that a consumer model of the vehicle will be marketed through existing automotive dealers who will also provide vehicle preparation, delivery and service.
|The 2009 Vortec 4.3L V-6.|
The vehicle will use GM’s Vortec 4.3-liter V-6 (LU3) that is currently applied in the Silverado and Sierra pickups and Express and Savana vans. GM ceased production of natural gas versions of its vans in the US in 2004. Those vehicles were based on the Vortec 6000 6.0L V-8 with alternative fuel systems.
GM at the time used IMPCO Technologies for the alternative fuel system conversion in its natural gas vehicles. IMPCO’s alternative fuel systems were jointly developed with GM and validated to GM standards. The systems were fuel injected, had a temperature-compensated fuel gauge reading (taking both the temperature and pressure of CNG into account) and a fast-fill fuel receptacle on the CNG system. IMPCO is a partner with Starcraft in Powertrain Integration LLC.
In a recent posting on GM’s FastLane blog, VP of Research and Development Larry Burns wrote that the company was again exploring offering a natural gas vehicle solution in the US, initially in the form of a dual-fuel combustion engine approach, with future applications of natural gas to produce electricity for E-Flex models (Volt and future variants) and longer-term use as a hydrogen feedstock at filling stations or at people’s homes.
GM already has extensive experience with natural gas vehicles. Our Opel Zafira CNG is among the leaders in Europe, where gasoline and diesel fuel are costly, and we are exploring a dual-fuel approach with natural gas and gasoline for US customers. While we are not ready to commit to a future production plan, we are taking a serious look at natural gas in the US as yet another way to diversify our portfolio of affordable and sustainable transportation energy solutions.
From our experience with ethanol in Brazil and the US, we believe that dual-fuel vehicles provide the kind of flexibility that gives consumers the confidence to purchase them. Just as owners of our flex-fuel ethanol/gasoline vehicles have two fuel choices, purchasers of natural gas/gasoline vehicles could also buy either fuel.—Larry Burns