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Dead-end for natural gas, electric cars?

Most carmakers are retreating from vehicles that run on natural gas or electricity, even though owners and environmentalists praise their potential.
Ann Derren-Lewis refuels her natural-gas Honda Civic GX in Los Angeles. She dumped her SUV when she got a job 40 miles from her home and her new employer offered incentives.Ric Francis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ann Deren-Lewis thought it would be hard to give up her Jeep Cherokee — she saw SUVs everywhere she went. Then a new job 40 miles away got her thinking about guzzling gas.

Out went the Jeep and in came a Honda Civic running on compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel cheaper than gasoline. Her car isn’t a hybrid, the increasingly popular vehicles fueled by gas and electricity; environmentalists say it’s even better.

“I’m driving a car that doesn’t put any bad things into the environment, it’s cheap to operate and maintain,” Deren-Lewis said. “And it’s comfortable.”

But despite the enthusiasm of drivers like Deren-Lewis, all automakers except for Honda are retreating from vehicles that run on natural gas or electricity. Car makers say there’s little buyer demand for so-called “alt-fuel” vehicles; environmentalists say car makers aren’t trying hard enough to market them.

Alternative-fuel vehicles never caught on like hybrids — it took about seven years for their number to double, according to federal statistics. As of 2002, Americans drove an estimated 471,000 alternative-fuel vehicles (including those powered by electricity, natural gas, propane, ethanol and methanol) the U.S. Energy Department said — up from 247,000 in 1995.

It’s still a fraction of the more than 15 million new vehicles sold annually in the United States.

No 'alt fuel' media blitz
Environmentalists say any vehicle that uses less gasoline is a good start. But many wonder why automakers don’t focus more on promoting alternative-fuel vehicles.

“Watch television or listen to the radio, you’re bombarded with ads for gas-powered vehicles,” said Andy Weisser, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of California who bought a natural gas vehicle out of concern about air quality. “I have never seen a natural gas vehicle ad.”

Deren-Lewis, a marketing executive at beauty products maker Neutrogena, only learned about natural gas cars after the company offered incentives for alternative-fuel drivers.

Internet research and word of mouth led her to a seller. “You don’t just pull into a Honda lot and say, ’Can you get me one of these?”’ she said.

Alternative-fuel cars do come with inconveniences: Natural gas vehicles can only be fueled at special stations and electric cars take up to eight hours to recharge. Rarely can either go more than 250 miles without refueling.

For Deren-Lewis, it’s not a big deal. She fills up every third day at isolated fueling stations happily located near her home in suburban Bradbury and near work at Los Angeles International Airport. And she pays less than $10 each time.

Automakers see that kind of convenience as an exception. They favor hybrids because buyers can fill up at regular gas stations, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“While natural gas is widely available, the number of refueling stations is a small universe,” she said. “We can build the vehicles but we can’t build the fueling infrastructure.”

GM's EV-1 experience
Automakers say vehicles such as the EV1, the first electric vehicle to go to market in 1996, never became popular enough to lower the cost of production.

“We invested more than $1 billion to make a commercially viable business out of our electric vehicle program,” GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said. The electric car didn’t catch on “because it forced people to make too many trade-offs in their transportation lifestyles.”

Fans of the EV1 say GM never gave it a fair chance. Even as the company promoted the EV1, it joined automakers in a lawsuit that dismantled a California program which promoted alt-fuel vehicles.

One former General Motors specialist responsible for promoting the EV1 said the company simply wasn’t producing enough “alt-fuel” vehicles.

“I had significant demand from people who wanted the vehicles and I couldn’t get vehicles to sell or lease,” said Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee who now advises environmental groups and automakers on alt-fuel vehicles.

Hybrids and hydrogen
Ford Motor Co. was criticized by environmentalists in 2003 when it decided to discontinue the natural gas version of its Crown Victoria. The model was popular among taxi companies, cities and other fleet owners that can refuel at one central location.

Cheryl Eberwein, a Ford spokeswoman, said the company decided to phase out the vehicles because the market was too small. After hybrids, Ford sees a future in hydrogen-powered vehicles like those touted by President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We basically decided it was more important that we focus on the hybrids and the hydrogen,” she said, “which is where the market is going.”

An important exception to the move away from natural gas is Honda, which this year will sell a natural gas conversion kit in California via dealers. The kit allows owners to refuel at homes with natural gas connections.