Vancouver, BC-based Westport Innovations Inc., a natural gas engine technology provider, has agreed to work with General Motors (GM) to advance engine technology for light-duty vehicles. It underscores that technology advances being made in gasoline and diesel transportation also can be applied to natural gas engines.

GM and Westport said they are focusing on developing gas engine controls, emissions and strategies focused on the light-duty vehicle market. Westport Vice President Darren Seed called the agreement “the first pure original equipment manufacturer [OEM] agreements” in that natural gas market segment that includes passenger vehicles, small trucks and forklifts among other things.

There is no overall value placed on the agreement, and the specific technology being developed is proprietary, but Seed said for Westport’s part of the deal the investment is something less than $10 million at this point. “That’s our side; I can’t even guess or comment to what GM will be spending.” Westport has similar agreements with Volvo and Caterpillar Inc.

“In all of them, we spend the first 12 to 18 months trying to make an initial product work,” Seed said.

The goal is to come up with a prototype or proof-of-concept, and then decide whether the joint venture partners want to move ahead jointly on a commercialization phase, Seed told NGI Tuesday.

In conjunction with the GM agreement, Westport said it plans to open a technical center in Michigan where it currently operates a small, 15-person operation in Farmington Hills. Seed said the facility will be a “full-blown research and development” facility with an expanded staff, and it will expand further as OEM programs are expanded.

The head of Westport’s light-duty division, Ian Scott, said the technology being sought in collaboration with GM “promises a cleaner, lower-cost fuel and reduced carbon footprint, while advancing the use of domestic energy.” Seed told NGI that Westport has seen a huge uptick in the interest in natural gas transportation in the past six months, which he attributes to the continuing low North American gas prices and high expectations for domestic supplies tied to the shale gas boom.

Westport, which was founded in the late 1990s as an offshoot to a combustion research unit at the University of British Columbia, touts itself as the only company globally that is involved in all segments of the three basic natural gas transportation market segments: light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and equipment.

“The GM agreement is a big step for us [further] into the light-duty sector,” Seed said. “Generically, we have seen more OEM market interest in the last six months than we have in probably six years.”

While Westport, like its competitors, sells conversion technology for existing light-duty vehicles, the company’s focus is on OEM engines where it puts the natural gas technology “right inside the engine block,” said Seed, who declined to specifically describe the technology being worked on with GM.

“With GM, our technology could be integrated into its engine, system and vehicle and sold as a 100% GM-branded vehicle.”

As part of this latest agreement, Westport said it will push the development of new technologies that enable vehicles in business and government fleets to run on natural gas. What it calls “hybridization, lower displacement with turbocharging, direct injection” and other fuel-saving technologies now being applied to gasoline and diesel engines, also can be applied to natural gas-powered engines, according to the company’s technical staff.

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