The Volkswagen group has revealed its plans to invest heavily in the development of compressed natural gas (CNG) technologies.
With European Union targets to cut overall CO2 emissions to 95g/km by 2020, and just 20g/km by 2050, manufacturers are under pressure to cut fleet emissions using alternative fuels.
Volkswagen's head of engine development, Uwe Behlendorf, isn't worried, though. He told us: 'CNG is ultimately capable of being just as sustainable as electric energy.
'CNG contains more energy per unit than any other fuel currently on sale and can be stored more densely. It can be carbon neutral; it makes a lot of sense.'
VAG has revealed its commitment to compressed natural gas (CNG) technology
VAG has planned ahead for CNG. Its new MQB platform can be used across all segments and has been specifically developed to accept CNG and Hybrid technology. The company says 220 of its models are open to CNG power as a result.
Natural gas reserves are thought to be large enough to last more than 70 years, while biomass projects and wind farms would provide infinite supplies.
In Germany, there are currently 913 CNG fuelling stations in operation and after 2013, six Volkswagens will be offered there in CNG format – including the new Golf. China currently has 600,000 CNG cars on its roads.
Just one model, a CNG-powered Volkswagen van is available in the UK – albeit as a special order that has been taken up in tiny numbers by small businesses. There have been discussions to introduce more, but it looks unlikely at present.
More importantly, there are only around twelve UK filling stations that offer CNG, and it will take huge investment, Government initiatives and considerable public interest to create a useable infrastructure. However, the situation is much more positive in Europe.
The UK has around twelve CNG filling stations at present
Head of powertrain research at Volkswagen, Dr. Tobias Losche-ter Horst is optimistic. 'CNG has grown from a 4.5% share of the German market in 2011, to 13% in 2012 – however it is still small.
'However, if you consider how quickly diesel developed, we shouldn't doubt that CNG could do the same.'
We drove Volkswagen's latest CNG-powered model, the Eco Up. It's not on sale in the UK, but by combining its 11kg CNG capability and 10-litre petrol tank, it's capable of CO2 emissions of just 79g/km. This would make it an appealing model – with a useable infrastructure behind it.
Its CNG tanks sit either side of the rear axle and, aside from revisions to the engine, do not alter the design or interior space. It keeps its five-star NCAP crash-test rating, too.
With its 74bhp, there is no noticeable difference in performance, the ride remains as good as the petrol car, and with no extra weight, it handles just as precisely, too.
On CNG alone, the Eco Up can travel up to 236 miles. Its petrol tank is there in case you can't make it to a CNG station, and provides a further 137 miles. Volkswagen believes fuel costs can be as cheap as £2.43 for every 62 miles travelled.
The CNG-powered Eco Up costs as little as £2.43 for every 63 miles driven
With the right infrastructure in place, the petrol element could be removed completely, creating carbon-neutral mobility. Volkswagen CNG product coordination boss Martin Kantenwein thinks that is some way off for the UK.
Kantenwein said: 'There's a long way to go, even in Germany. We have 913 stations now, but would need more like 2000 for it to a credible fuel source. As for the UK, CNG development is even further behind – I'd say around 1200 stations would be needed before it made sense to people.'
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