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My Own Alternative-Fueled Vehicles

Penelope II

This is Penelope II, my 1993 Dodge B250 Ram Wagon (3/4 ton 8-passenger van), with a 5.2 liter (318 cubic inch) V-8 engine that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). Unlike, say, a GM EV1 or Honda EV Plus electric car, which were designed for alternative power from the ground up, you can hardly tell that this isn't a perfectly ordinary gasoline-burning vehicle. The only clues (besides the blue "CNG" diamond label on the rear and the license plate and frame, plus a few decals I've added since the photo was taken) are those odd white cylinders hanging off the underside of the body at the rear and along the left side. These are the fuel tanks; there are two behind the rear axle, replacing the standard gasoline tank...

Rear tanks

...and two more mounted along the length of the vehicle, to the left of the driveshaft.

Side tanks

The three white tanks are what the vehicle came with, stock; they store an amount of natural gas that is about equivalent to 9 or 10 gallons of gasoline. The big greenish tank, the one nearest the driveshaft, was added by Alternate Fuel Technologies in Huntington Beach, California, after I got the van (it was put where the catalytic converter and muffler usually are, so the exhaust system had to be shifted to the right side of the driveshaft). All together, the four tanks store natural gas equivalent to about 16 or 17 gallons of gasoline--this is in a vehicle that comes stock with a 22-gallon gasoline tank and optionally with a 35-gallon tank, so I definitely see a reduction in range between fill-ups compared to an ordinary van! However, this is not enough to prevent me from taking interstate trips; I've driven from Los Angeles, California to Phoenix, Arizona and back several times since 1997, with no problems, and I drove Clean Across America And Back in August 1998 (a round trip between Los Angeles and Portland, Maine). When put into airport-shuttle service, as is common, these vans often had a huge extra tank mounted inside the passenger compartment for extra range, behind the rearmost seat; however, I decided I wanted to be able to remove the seats and use the entire interior to carry large items (like motorcycles and furniture), so my van is completely stock on the inside.

This is not an aftermarket conversion; this is the first natural-gas-powered vehicle series-produced by an automaker. 1993 was the first model year of volume production; Chrysler had trouble obtaining fuel tanks and stopped producing CNG vans after the 1996 model year, but they came back for several more years starting with the 1999 model year. In the meantime, Ford, which began producing the first factory CNG-powered car (the Crown Victoria) in the 1996 model year, started making CNG vans too, and both Ford and General Motors had CNG pickups available. And starting with the 1998 model year, Honda has offered a CNG-powered Civic GX that has taken honors as the cleanest internal-combustion-engine vehicle ever tested by the EPA in every year since then. In the mid-2000s, the domestic automakers quit making natural-gas-powered vehicles, leaving only the Civic GX and, again, aftermarket conversions of a few GM and Ford models that are popular with fleet users.

Actually, the very first factory-warrantied natural-gas-powered vehicle sold was the Chevrolet/GM C2500 pickup, in a demo program during the 1992 and 1993 model years. This was upfitted by PAS, Inc. with a throttle-body injection system for natural gas (my van's sequential multi-point injection for natural gas was put in at the Dodge factory, I'm pretty sure). I had one of these pickups, a 1992 Chevrolet that I named Penelope (which is why my van is Penelope II), which I bought new in November 1993 from a small number of 1992's that had remained unsold until then. Here's a picture that I took just before she was recalled in April 1994; I then bought Penelope II (slightly used by an Arizona natural-gas utility company) in February 1995.

Penelope I

"Wait a minute--recalled??" Doesn't that sound like it gives the lie to my claims about the safety of CNG vehicles? Well, obviously I don't think so--after all, I went out and bought another one! Two trucks each had one of their fuel tanks rupture; there were some minor injuries to the drivers, but no fires. It turned out that "acidic fluids" had dripped from the bed of each pickup onto one of its three underbody tanks and weakened it to the point it could no longer withstand the fuel pressure inside it; the story I have heard from several sources (but which I am not equipped to confirm independently) is that the "acidic fluids" were there because the owners were carrying leaky old car batteries in the pickup beds for a recycling business! So the tank failures were hardly GM's fault, and a lot of people thought a recall was unnecessary (myself included--I felt like I was being asked to shoot my dog *snif*). However, this was right at the same time as the Great Saddle-Tank Scare, when a TV news magazine show "dramatized" a crash test by using model-rocket igniters to produce a satisfyingly telegenic fireball as a late-1980's GM pickup (with "saddle tanks", or gasoline tanks partly outside the frame rails) was struck from the side by a car. I suspect that GM decided they did not want to fight a two-front war, so they closed out the concerns about the small number (about 2500) of CNG pickups by recalling them and giving us our money back.

So, at the risk of boasting, I think I can claim to have "put my money where my mouth is"--except for the interruption between the two Penelopes, my main vehicle was an alternative-fueled vehicle from November 1993 to December 2007, and I have become firmly convinced of their practicality. Of course, this is easiest in Southern California, where I lived, because that area has the highest density of CNG refueling stations in the country; however, there are many cities across the country--maybe where you live--where alternative fueling stations are becoming downright common. When I began driving on CNG in 1993, I had to go 35 miles round trip from my apartment to refuel; I gambled that, with patience, the number of refueling stations would increase (that's why I chose the name Penelope for my CNG vehicles--the wife of Ulysses was an archetype of patience; of course, I was also a fan of the Wacky Racers when I was a kid!), and it's paid off--from 1995 to 1999 my main refueling station was less than five miles from my apartment, and since 1997 there's been one less than two miles from my job. I hope you will consider taking a similar gamble when you get your next car or truck.

May 18, 2007

Note added 2 September 2003: I've been driving CNG vehicles for almost a decade now, and they have served me well; however, my daily commute to and from work is only seven miles round trip, and unless I need to carry something besides myself and a few pounds of books and gear, it's just wasteful to haul two tons of metal along with me. For this reason I have been looking at electric mopeds for some years, but they have always been too pricey, $2500 and up--until now. A company called eGO Vehicles has been making a 20 MPH scooter with 20 miles of range per charge for a couple of years now, priced at $1399, and recently they offered a few refurbished factory and demo models (from the previous year) for half price. My wife and I calculated that one of these would pay for itself in two or three years at this price, so I grabbed one; after being interested in electric vehicles since 1990 when the Impact prototype (which later evolved into the General Motors EV1) was introduced, and after years of disappointment that GM never actually would sell me an EV1, I am finally able to commute using electricity! One of these could pay for itself even more quickly for you, if you're paying the kind of gasoline prices shown in the picture (or more!) instead of 25%-50% less for CNG...

Last fillup at Thousand Palms

Epilogue, 1 December 2008: The photo above is from the last long road trip I took in Penelope II, refueling at the Thousand Palms CNG station (the last one on I-10 before Phoenix) on my way to Joshua Tree National Park with my telescope on 13 April 2007. About this time my wife and I started making plans to pull up stakes and move to Hawaii so our kids could grow up with family close by (we had no immediate family within hundreds of miles of L.A.), and we made the move in December. Hawaii has no fossil fuel resources, so everything has to come in on a boat; thus I would no longer be able to get natural gas to fuel my van, since it's a lot easier to transport propane (LPG) by ship and so that's the only gaseous fuel that's available on the islands. (Note added 3 April 2010: I have since learned that there is synthetic natural gas available on the leeward side of the island, produced by "cracking" the naptha that's a by-product of the gasoline refinery; however, its purity is not high enough for compression to CNG pressures, and so there are no fueling stations.) I had to leave my van in California; but, with the fifteen-year road certification of the fuel tanks coming to an end (more recent tanks have a twenty-year lifespan), she had no resale value, and it looked like I'd have no choice but to scrap her. (I sold the electric scooter to a friend.)

Handing over the keys

However, she was saved from the boneyard through a contact I had made at the Alternative Car and Transportation Expo in Santa Monica a couple of months before the move: Yunju Ray, the education manager of the Petersen Automotive Museum, and some other Petersen folks were showing their EV1 there (the one driven by Kris Trexler on his Charge Across America a few months before my own trip Clean Across America and Back). She put me in touch with curator Leslie Kendall, and on a trip back to L.A. in January 2008, I gave him the keys! (Dick Messer, Robert Blum, and Mary Brisson were also there, and collections manager Tom Kenney is behind the camera.) Quite apart from whatever minor historical value she might have as (I'm pretty sure) the CNG vehicle that has visited the most states under its own power and using public refueling stations, they decided that she was a good example of the very earliest modern factory alternative-fueled vehicles, a few years earlier than the electric vehicles already in their collection like the EV1. (I also gave them my treasured red EV1 jacket, which I'm wearing in the picture, and some of the literature and other memorabilia about alternative-fueled vehicles that I had collected over the preceding decade and a half, with the rest to follow when I can find time to dig it out of the moving boxes and scan it.) Anybody out there who's any kind of a "car guy" (or gal) knows that it is a tremendous honor to have your vehicle accepted into the collection of a museum of the caliber of the Petersen; I'm very grateful to them for allowing Penelope II to continue the educational mission that led me to drive her to Maine and back a decade earlier (and to start this website).

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new 4 July 1998, updated 3 April 2010