When Ford announced last summer it would sell a version of its F-150 pickup specially made to run on natural gas, many saw it as a watershed moment.
Few light-duty vehicles used by everyday consumers are available in a natural gas configuration. Suddenly, the most popular model in America’s best-selling line of vehicles would come in a version that could run on the relatively cheap, clean fuel.
But early sales numbers show that the public isn’t exactly clamoring for an F-150 powered by compressed natural gas. Ford readies the trucks for CNG conversion on the assembly line, and contractors later perform the conversion by special customer order.
Since sales began in December, just over 200 of the CNG-prepped trucks have been sold.
Ford officials say they aren’t worried.
“The first year is always a bit challenging because it’s new to everyone who is looking at it,” said Jon Coleman, Ford fleet sustainability and technology manager. “Once we get established in the market, then we’ll see the sales pick up substantially.”
Coleman said the third-party modifiers that convert the vehicles only began their work in the last few months, so he doesn’t view the figures as especially low.
“Having that number of orders this early on, we think, is a fairly good endorsement,” he said.
Analysts aren’t as upbeat about the numbers, but they say that from a business perspective, it might not matter for Ford.
“You’re talking small numbers when in the U.S., 16 million vehicles could be sold this year,” said Christian Mayes, an analyst with Edward Jones Equity Research, referring to total projected car and truck sales in 2014. “It’s pretty niche.”
Mayes said Ford doesn’t have to use many resources to produce CNG-ready trucks, nor does it have to do the heavy lifting of conversion.
Essentially, the CNG-ready F-150 is giving Ford the chance to test the waters with alternative fuel vehicles – and get some good publicity – without much cost or risk.
Last year, Ford announced that its 2014 F-150 trucks would come in two options beyond the typical gasoline model: one that runs on natural gas and another that can run on natural gas or gasoline.
Natural gas is less expensive and produces fewer polluting emissions.