Drive from New York City to Detroit – just more than 600 miles – in a Ford F-250 and not use a single drop of gas; well, at least not of the unnatural kind most people put in their tank.
No, this big rig, which looked like a giant Ford billboard, would be powered by compressed natural gas.
CNG is all the rage again. Carmakers are looking for alternative ways to provide transportation that is cheaper, cleaner but still deliver the same kind of power people need. According to the federal government, 87 percent of natural gas is produced in the U.S., it emits up to 40 percent less greenhouse gases, and has up to 90 percent less smog-producing pollutants.
Mother Nature drives a CNG pickup.
And other than all of the stickers on this particular truck, it looked like any other F-250. The only difference was about 30 percent of the bed was taken up with a tank that could hold 3,600 pounds of CNG.
CNG already here
The beauty of any CNG vehicle is it operates nearly exactly the same way as their gasoline-powered counterparts. CNG's are going to play a role in keeping internal combustion engines driving this nation 50 years from now. Sorry all of you electric fans – there's not going to be 1 million EVs on U.S. roads by 2015 or even 2020. Your time is coming, but probably not for a while.
But CNG hasn't only arrived, it's been here. The price is attractive--the equivalent of about $1.70 to $2.20 if you were powering with gasoline.
Already, there are more than 100 different kinds of CNG vehicles available today in America. Only one, however, the Honda Civic, is available to the public from a dealership. The others are either buses, fleet vehicles or aftermarket conversions.
That, of course, should change judging how well this Ford F-250 performed for me. Its smooth ride, excellent power and seamless change from CNG to gasoline make it an ideal candidate for someone who needs pickup capabilities, cheaper fuel and wants to create a smaller carbon footprint.
Ford only charges $315 to make its 6.2-liter V-8 engine capable of running on CNG. (This does not include the actual CNG tank or fuel lines, a package costing thousands more, but does provide a bi-fuel manifold and hardened intake valves and valve seats.)
Operating with CNG is an attractive option for many kinds of drivers and vehicles. Take a utility company, with a fleet of vehicles that drive around a city all day and return to a home base at night. But CNG on the highway, going from one city to another 500 miles away, remains much like the cast of Saturday Night Live: Not ready for prime time.
When I drove the CNG Honda Civic in the past, I learned quickly about range anxiety. It's a true physical phenomenon where you watch the fuel gauge drop and your stomach churns as you try to remember that there is just one Detroit station with a CNG pump. The only backup the Civic comes with is your cell phone to call a tow truck.
Fortunately, this Ford F-250 runs on both CNG and regular gas. It switches so seamlessly from one to the other, I could never pinpoint which fuel I was running at any given time.
In order to use only CNG, I figured I could stop every couple hundred miles, fill up and be on my way. I downloaded two apps – CNG Fuel Finder and Alternative Fuel Locations – for my iPhone and thought this might help keep my stomach settled. Had my truck been in a pure CNG vehicle, however, those phone apps would have given me an ulcer.
I plotted my route to Detroit from New York City, and then failed miserably to enjoy this ride the way I had hoped. It wasn't me. It wasn't the truck. It wasn't even the inaccurate or unworkable apps. It was Interstate 80.
Finding natural gas
The list of CNG stations Ford provided to me required that my first stop be in Philadelphia. And while I adore the city of Brotherly Love, it's also 94 miles out of my way! The next stop along the way was in Williamsport, Pennsylvania--the home of the Little League Baseball Hall of Fame--at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. But the general public can't use that pump.
Then, just as I was running out of CNG in my tank, according to the blinking blue lights on my dash, I made my way to a Uni-Mart near the highway that the CNG Finder said was a CNG station. When I got there, there was no gas station at all. Just a field greeted me and my fuel gauge started to say I was now running on petrol.
The rush of anxiety left me as I knew I had to go another 100 miles to State College and fill up there. And I had gasoline as a backup.
The open road
The F-250, it remains a great truck no matter what fuel powers it.
It's big, but drives small. Even through New York City's streets, it maneuvered well, weaving through traffic. At a few points, I think the truck's size gave me an edge, allowing me to nose into a lane, intimidating a New York City driver in a much smaller rig.
The high riding position was also advantageous, providing me a chance to see past the car in front of me. Making my way out of the city, I quickly found myself on Interstate 80. My CNG tank was about three-quarters full. As I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, I wondered if my truck was even allowed in there. I didn't stop to ask.
Along the open highway, even with the bed empty, the F-250 offers an excellent ride. Some pickups need a couple of pounds in the bed to smooth out the taut suspension, but not so with the F-250.
Additionally, the CNG Lariat model Ford supplied me with all of the creature comforts of most luxury cars. The only thing I'd suggest is providing a navigation system that locates real CNG fueling stations.
As I burned through six gallons of gas to find my way to the CNG pump in State College, I couldn't help but enjoy the big hills of Pennsylvania. Even as I looked down at the fuel gauge between the speedometer and tachometer, I was pleased to see how little fuel the truck was using. According to the readout, I still had 1,000 miles of range.
This, of course, was not true. And during the trip, it always felt a little dishonest; kind of like vehicles that offer a silly "instantaneous" mileage that are equally dishonest, jumping from 15 mpg to 25 mpg seconds apart. The Ford system does not account for the CNG miles. It simply assumes you have driven 150 miles on a single drop of gasoline, thus it says your hitting 99 mpg and have an unlimited range.
Obviously, Ford needs to rethink this. Disavowing responsibility is irresponsible.
What the truck needs is a screen that monitors your CNG use and tells you the range you have left with the fuel. Then when the regular gas starts pumping, the real fuel economy numbers kick in.
At the pump
No one likes something different, and filling up with CNG is different. The nozzle has to lock onto the tank, which is a small nozzle right next to the gas tank cap. Then, when you pull down the handle, there's a big whooshing sound that surprised me.
Other than that, it was absolutely normal. And that's one reason America could convert to CNG so quickly.
Fill-up time is only a few minutes and process. Walk in, tell the cashier you want to fill up on pump-15 and then whoosh.
From there, I plotted my next course, costing me about an hour of time because of the additional distance. But the filling station I located on the CNG Fuel Finder would allow me to make the trip the rest of the way home on natural gas.
So, I eventually made my way to Interstate 76, proud of myself for driving more than 400 miles on a scant 7 gallons of gasoline. According to Ford's own on-board computer, I was averaging more than 100 miles per gallon.
But once again, I was let down with the app. When the blue dot on my phone met up with the red pin of the station, there was nothing; Just a ditch on a road through one of those small Ohio towns that are swallowed up by cornfields.
The final leg home
The CNG wasn't going to last much longer, and as far as I could tell, Toledo is CNG-pump free, so I'd have to finish this trip the traditional way-- with gasoline.
I cruised on down those country roads of Ohio, passing barns and corn fields and the occasional cow as the shadows grew longer and the sun redder. The F-250 looked right at home along these roads as I passed an occasional pickup heading the other way.
Eventually, those very same trucks my have a 3,600 PSI tank in their beds as well, I thought. But not before the network of truck-stops along Interstate highways have a reliable CNG pump system that is open to commercial truckers, as well as the public.
CNG is the one alternative fuel that makes sense for things like pickups, which need power for all of the heavy lifting they do. And curtailing their emissions can lead to a much bigger impact on the environment. Gas-electric hybrids and all-electric powertrains don't make sense for pickups.
All told, my trip of 654 miles burned through 16.6 gallons of gas, as well as $30 worth of CNG. The total trip costs about $100, which is still much less than a plane ticket, and there was no charge for my checked bag.
America still has a lot of infrastructure work to do if it wants CNG vehicles to make a real impact. It is in our interest to make it happen. We have so much of it, and so little demand, we are running out of places to store it. How we get natural gas out of the ground--via "fracking," which is a process of blasting apart shale with a slurry of water and chemicals--remains controversial because of how little we know about the chemicals energy companies are using.
A smart approach to using CNG to power commercial trucks, and some percentage of personal vehicles, could one day make the U.S. independent of Middle East oil.
Until we work out a reliable infrastructure of refilling stations, natural gas vehicles will remain merely a quirky way to power a vehicle.
As for the F-250 CNG, it's pretty fracking nice.