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Alternative Fuels: Focus Shifts to Passenger Cars

General Motors Co. (GM) CEO Dan Akerson said Wednesday that GM plans to introduce next year a bi-fuel natural gas/gasoline version of its Impala passenger car offering a driving range of up to 500 miles.

Akerson disclosed the marketing plans in a speech to a Washington, DC-based conference marking the 40 anniversary of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which changed the way Americans viewed energy and particularly gasoline for their cars. At the same conference, various business leaders championed the idea that U.S. businesses ultimately will lead the transition to wider use of alternative vehicles in the United States.

"Natural gas powertrains are one of the areas where we have increased investment because we believe the technology can satisfy the 'green' needs of both the environment and stockholders," Akerson said in a speech at the Securing America's Energy Future summit.

Akerson stressed that a variety of solutions will be needed, warning that, "energy security won't come from a one-off moonshot."

The 2015 Chevrolet Impala will be GM's first passenger car featuring a powertrain that switches between gasoline and compressed natural gas (CNG). The car, which will operate with one CNG tank and a separate gasoline tank, is slated to be sold at both retail outlets and to fleet operators.

So far, it is commercial fleets that have led the transition to between 130,000 and 135,000 natural gas vehicles (NGV) on U.S. roadways.

"We have a heavy-duty vehicle fleet we are going to make dependent on natural gas," said Waste Management CEO David Steiner, adding that natural gas can bring many benefits in addition to being cleaner than gasoline and diesel. "When you run a CNG truck, you have fewer moving parts, so maintenance actually comes down."

In regard to the new bi-fuel Impalas, Akerson said he expects the initial sales will be small and mostly to commercial and government fleet operators. He said it will be a "home run" for the company if 750 to 1,000 of the CNG Impalas are sold the first year.

The latest statistics show that the lack of fueling stations continues to be an issue. There are currently about 135,000 fueling stations for NGVs, and about half of those are available to the public. That compares to 168,000 gasoline fueling stations.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt told the energy summit that the world is in "a natural gas and renewables age," and that he remains confident that there is "enough U.S. natural gas" so the nation can export liquefied natural gas to other nations while supporting a renaissance in domestic manufacturing.

Immelt said he hopes the shale gas revolution will not be "strangled" by excessive federal regulation.

All of the major vehicle manufacturers are making pickup trucks that run on natural gas, either through bi-fuel vehicles or ones upfitted to run on natural gas, but the NGVs in the passenger car sector have been sparse.

Honda Motor Co. sells a CNG version of its Civic, but until now other carmakers haven't followed suit.

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