RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the world of trucks, the reigning king is the Ford F-150. It's been that way for a couple of decades. But staying in that top spot is getting harder. With new tougher fuel standards looming, there's a lot of emphasis on efficiency and innovation. Today, Ford is announcing its flagship truck is taking a step into the alternative fuel world with a vehicle that can run on natural gas.
NPR's Sonari Glinton has the story.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you look at their bottom lines and their advertising, you realize that the Detroit Three make cars, but they're really a truck companies, especially Ford.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You won't be put in a choke hold every time you fill up, because you can also get the best fuel economy. Chew on that. This is the future. This is the new the new F-150.
JACK NERAD: Well, I think the F-150 pickup truck is probably the single most important vehicle to Ford Motor Company, and arguably, it might be the single most important vehicle period. It's just an 800-pound gorilla in the marketplace.
GLINTON: Jack Nerad is an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. He says when Ford takes a step, there's a potential that the rest of the truck world will follow. Ford is making compressed natural gas an option on the truck that is its best-selling vehicle.
Compressed Natural Gas, or CNG, is cheaper than petroleum, and it emits less carbon dioxide, and the U.S. has a whole lot of it. Advocates for natural gas say this is a big step toward using more of it.
John Hoffmeister used to be CEO of Shell, the oil giant. Now he's runs a group called Citizens for Affordable Energy.
JOHN HOFFMEISTER: The fact that Ford would begin to put CNG - compressed natural gas - into a very popular consumer vehicle I think is a major step along the way to a transformation of the total fleet of American vehicles.
GLINTON: The F-150 will run on both CNG and regular gas. But it won't be cheap. The CNG option runs upwards of $7,000.
Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book doesn't think there's a huge consumer market, but he says large companies and city and county governments will be interested.
NERAD: Now, a lot of these vehicles are purchased on a cost-down basis, and if you can get the cost of fuel down, as natural gas has the possibility of doing, it's going to be pretty successful - at least with fleet customers.
GLINTON: For regular consumers, there is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Out on the road, there just aren't a lot of places where you can get compressed natural gas.
Again, John Hoffmeister.
HOFFMEISTER: Because before you will spend the money to put in the compressed natural gas infrastructure, you want to know that you're going to be able to sell enough compressed natural gas to enough vehicles to pay the bill.
GLINTON: Hoffmeister says a popular vehicle like the F-150 taking natural gas could help spark the building of the missing infrastructure.
Environmentalists, though, aren't on board with using natural gas because of controversial way much of the gas is extracted, through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Roland Hwang is with Natural Resources Defense Council. He says he's not opposed to the fuel, but he doesn't like how we're getting it.
ROLAND HWANG: When you look at that F-150, or whatever vehicle, in a showroom and you're thinking about whether this is a good choice for the environment, you've got to keep in mind how this fuel is being produced. Is it better, or is it just different?
GLINTON: But the automakers are under pressure to increase fuel economy, and it's not that hard to adapt current engines to run on compressed natural gas. And so that's why you'll soon be seeing them in showrooms. But it's not clear yet whether average consumers are ready to step up and pay thousands of extra dollars for a natural gas option.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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