Unlocking the CNG challenges for auto manufacturers in India
A study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) observed that 28 percent of PM 2.5 emissions in Delhi was caused by vehicular pollution . This statistic highlights a pressing need for the automotive ecosystem to come up with a comprehensive solution for cleaner air. One key step towards this end is a distinct move towards Natural Gas Vehicles (NGV), powered by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
According to a report from global consultancy firm Nomura Research Institute, right steps by industry and government could help achieve 50% sales penetration of natural gas vehicles by 2030 which would be a significant achievement. High penetration of natural gas vehicles by 2030 could lead to potential crude oil import savings of INR 1 lakh crore (US$ 153 billion at current exchange rate) by 2030. 
Economics, Performance, Safety and Convenience are the key factors that influence a buying decision of any consumer seeking to buy a car. If the government and the industry can collaborate and offer these benefits for CNG vehicles, then it would certainly create a pull within the market for CNG vehicles.
In case of automotive manufacturers, they have had to solve the manufacturing challenges associated with CNG whilst encouraging end-customers to buy CNG vehicles. Let’s look at each of these aspects to understand it better.
CNG offers a lower operating cost in the long run, it’s a key attraction for the customers. However, the initial costs can be high mainly due to the manufacturing challenges of CNG vehicles. Natural gas has to be stored under high pressure so CNG vehicles need specialized and large fuel tanks. These tanks are more expensive to build, so the selling price of CNG vehicles comes out to be a bit higher.
The availability of low-pressure, high-density CNG storage systems can enable more cost-effective, small-scale refueling options that too, without sacrificing the total range. It may also lead to lower fuel production or compression costs at current commercial fueling stations. Lower pressure feasibility provides an option to modify the tanks and enable more placement options in a vehicle. This creates opportunities for lower-cost home refueling devices.
Finding cost effective ways to implement light weight and safe CNG cylinder technologies like TYPE-4 Cylinders is the need of the hour. Dedicated research for fibre-based gas storage with reduced gas permeation is required to discover more cost-effective lightweight gas storage options. These research efforts can be combined with conformable storage to allow for lighter, cheaper, and more adaptable CNG cylinders.
In the upcoming BS-VI regime, CNG vehicles can be expected to be significantly lower priced. This is because for Diesel, the price of after-treatment devices will be very high. Therefore, CNG can be positioned as a cost-effective, fuel efficient and environment-friendly option to the conventional Diesel or Petrol fuels.
Performance and Safety:
Automotive manufacturers have also developed technology solutions like Electronic Fuel Management, Turbo charging, CNG compatible materials for engine components and safety features like Pressure Relief valves, Monitoring and control functions for pressure lines etc. They claim to offer quality performance along with reliable service life and utmost safety of the vehicle user.
From an end-user’s perspective, CNG vehicles variants were historically perceived as under-powered compared to petrol versions as, in most cases, CNG vehicle engines were not designed and tuned for CNG fuel. But now, with company-fitted CNG engines, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) ensure that the engine design and calibration is tuned to use CNG. Furthermore, with introduction of turbo-charging in select segments like commercial vehicles, CNG vehicles will be as powerful as its comparative Diesel models.
From the perspective of road safety, it is a common notion that CNG vehicles are more prone to catching fire. This is mostly caused due to lack of maintenance, as old wires may lose their insulation and may lead to short circuit. To avoid it, pre-installed CNG kits must be checked regularly. Also, there needs to be enough precaution taken as CNG is highly flammable. Installing unauthorized CNG kits can be extremely dangerous.
The fight to make CNG vehicle safe is a joint responsibility of Government and OEMs’. They can leverage the recent Supreme Court ruling that makes it clear that it is illegal for the buyer to make any changes to the vehicle. Therefore, only the OEM fitted CNG kits will be legal and installing all other stand-alone CNG kits available in the market will be illegal.
Lack of adequate CNG filling stations remains a major concern for the end-user as it affects the viability of making inter-city trips. At the end of April 2018, there were only 1,424 CNG stations in India with more than 80% located in Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat. CNG prices can also vary from region to region leading to unpredictability and concerns about pricing consistency. If CNG was more readily available, automakers could have sold more CNG cars. Now, few of these automakers are trying to seek government’s intervention and support to widen the CNG network.
On the brighter side, the Government of India (GOI) has taken several significant policy initiatives towards increasing the number of CNG stations. The GOI recently unveiled a Natural Gas Infrastructure Development Plan to set up 10,000 CNG stations over the next 10 years. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) also announced plans to launch the 10 th round of bidding for city gas distribution (CGB) to extend CNG infrastructure to an additional 124 districts. This would entail coverage of 52% of India’s area and 70% of the population, which would mark a big leap for the country.
Manufacturers should explore advanced storage technology to enhance the total range of CNG vehicles. Alternative options like integrating CNG cylinders into various vehicle designs which are limited by the size and the shape of the present cylinders can definitely be considered with studies being conducted on their viability. Cost sharing to underwrite the costs of vehicle design and certification, as well as a market study or needs assessment to determine where bigger cylinder integration would add value. It could further help to encourage better Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV) design. Increased OEM efforts on gas storage technologies can lead to mutual benefits for all the stakeholders involved in the manufacturing process.
India Racing Ahead
The market for CNG vehicles in India is still untapped – the current number of CNG stations in India support only a total of 30 lakh CNG vehicles which is way below global standards . Despite the limited number of CNG stations in the country, regions with an adequate number of CNG stations have seen increased popularity of CNG vehicles. According to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India, Delhi has already seen large-scale switching from petrol and diesel to CNG with 50,000 vehicles already being converted .
Leading automotive manufacturers in every vehicle category have been taking significant efforts in development of CNG variants with the advent of BS-III & BS-IV. As the infrastructure for CNG develops in India, some manufacturers have expressed hope that it could lead to an increase in CNG vehicles. Automotive manufacturers should also consider engaging with CNG dealers on the steps required to encourage growth of this sector. A joint collaborative strategy between all the key and relevant stakeholders of the automotive-ecosystem would be extremely beneficial in this regard.
Undoubtedly, the CNG vehicles market in India has immense potential for growth. The good news is automotive manufacturers and OEMs are responding to government’s increased push towards CNG vehicles and are taking concerted efforts to develop new models and technologies which will fulfil increasing customer aspirations. However, on a global level, the biggest benefit of a dedicated CNG adoption will be a cleaner, greener and sustainable planet.