Commercial vehicles still make up the majority of the 13 percent of vehicles sold.
|The Isuzu ELF panel van is the best selling CNG-powered vehicle in Japan.|
Despite this shift in consumption patterns, natural gas has yet to make inroads into the auto sector. Sales of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles still account for a fraction of 1 percent, although they have been running on Japanese roads since the early 1990s. In June, there were 17,200 in operation, the majority in Tokyo and Osaka (see Table 2), and the number is projected to increase to more than 21,000 by summer 2004.
Driving still fledgling demand is the 1998 decision by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Organization (NEDO) to extend subsidies for ‘clean’ vehicles. Under the scheme, NEDO, an offshoot of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, awards discounts of around 10 percent at the time of purchase. Since the program went into effect in June 1998, an estimated 90 percent of buyers have taken advantage of the government’s offer.
With respect to the current CNG vehicle pool (see Table 3), light- and medium trucks account for nearly half of total. The top-selling model, Isuzu Motor’s 4.3L Elf, passed the 5 million sales mark in July.
In other segments, compact station wagons and vans like Nissan Motor’s AD Van and Toyota Motor’s Probox have a 17 percent share, while 660cc minivehicles (both cars and trucks) claim around 20 percent. Of the remainder, standard-sized sedans like Nissan’s Cedric have a 6 percent share; commuter buses and forklifts combine for around 8 percent.
In the commuter bus market, Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp. has achieved LEV-7 levels with its CNG-powered Aerostar and Rosa buses.
In terms of ownership, freight forwarders like Sagawa Express, Nippon Express and Yamato Transport account for 60 percent of CNG vehicle registrations. They are followed by gas companies, at 21 percent, and central and local governments, at 18 percent.
Meanwhile, as of April there were 224 CNG fuel stations in operation including 177 multifuel ‘eco’ stations which, in addition to supplying natural gas and methanol, are equipped with battery-chargers for electric vehicles. Newly added to the still-small list of dedicated CNG stations is Isuzu’s Shonandai station.
Built adjacent to the truckmaker’s Fujisawa plant in Kanagawa Prefecture, the facility opened in April. In backing the initiative, Isuzu management noted that CNG, in addition to not producing particulate matter and smoke, generates far less NOx (oxides of nitrogen) than other fossil fuels.
In the U.S., Honda Motor Co. plans to begin marketing a CNG home refueling unit in 2004 that will permit users to tap into the natural gas line running into their homes. Estimated cost of the unit: $1,500.
Once the new fueling accessory is available, American Honda expects sales of the CNG-powered Civic GX to increase to several thousand annually, from several hundred at present. Since the model was introduced in 2001, American Honda has sold fewer than 1,000 units. The model, which is produced at the East Liberty, Ohio, plant of Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., is sold almost exclusively in the U.S.
Against this backdrop, researchers note that one of the biggest obstacles to greater usage of natural gas as a replacement fuel for gasoline and diesel is the government’s commitment to hydrogen. They argue that converting to natural gas is much simpler, thus more cost effective, and could have an immediate impact on the environment. Moreover, they feel the hydrogen storage problem, both onboard and within the fuel supply chain, is still years away from being resolved.
Kogakuin University’s Seijirau Suda, a specialist in the field of hydrogen storage technology, feels that NEDO’s support of ‘compressed’ hydrogen is another example of the organization’s throwing money at a problem with little chance of success. “Even if we were to increase pressure levels to 1,000 MPa (100 bar), cars would not be able to carry 5 kg of hydrogen and travel distances of 500 km (312 miles),” he declares.
NEDO’s range target for hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, the organization’s vehicle of choice, is 500 km. CNG can achieve that level today without requiring a major overhaul of the nation’s fueling infrastructure.
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