The increased use of bi-fuel strategies in the U.S. is likely to be the next big issue for full-size pickup trucks, especially if fuel prices start creeping upward again. Both Ram Truck and GM have been pushing hard lately to make their heavy-duty trucks more fuel flexible for both commercial and fleet buyers. But Ford is the most aggressive truck maker in just about every segment, encouraging various alternative fuel hardware companies to make systems for just about every one of their truck platforms from the Transit Connect to the F-650. That means they’ve been able to work with competing companies to bring the prices of those systems down, down and down.
The latest result of this particular strategy is a compressed natural gas bi-fuel system from Altech-Eco that we got a chance to drive at the 2013 Texas Truck Rodeo outside San Antonio, Texas. The package includes a 15.7-gallon (gasoline equivalent) tank in the bed of either a Ford F-150 4x2 Crew Cab or 4x4 Super Cab with the 3.7-liter V-6 engine. The total system adds about $7,700 to the XLT Package F-150 and does not include a $315 charge Ford requires to build the base V-6 engine with dual injectors and several other upgrade engine pieces. Because Ford controls the build of the engine, they can fully warranty the engine just like every other Ford F-150.
No matter what fuel it's using, the F-150 CNG engine is designed to feel identical when running. During our quick drive over nasty dirt roads through an East Texas ranch where we punished the two-wheel-drive up and down hills and river washes, we found absolutely no performance difference between either fuel. We’re told the added range with the CNG tank in the bed can mean running up to 800 or 900 miles between fill-ups. Unlike some systems out there, Altech-Eco allows the driver to decide which fuel they want to run on with a small manual switch on the side of the dash. The only other way to identify the truck from a "normal" F-150 (when sitting inside the truck) is by identifying an extra fuel gauge where the 4x4 switch would be next to the radio.
We’re told that the system in no way negatively impacts the vehicle’s payload or towing capacity, but clearly it does reduce the bed space by about a third when equipped with the shortbed. Although this may not be a huge problem for many, it will be an issue for some personal-use and commercial buyers. The system itself weighs just over 200 pounds, or the weight of one adult male passenger. No doubt one of these alternative fuel suppliers Ford is working with will figure out how to mount the added tank somewhere that it doesn’t shrink bed cargo space.
The bi-fuel systems can be ordered straight from a fleet dealership right now, which is likely to have their preferences on which system they've had the best experience with. At this point, Ford has more than a half dozen qualified companies they work with to upfit to CNG or LPG fuels. As they get more popular and the infrastructure builds, we expect these systems to continue coming down in price as Ford continues encouraging its suppliers to keep competing against one another.
We’ll have more on the real-world fuel costs over time when we get one into our offices to test. To read the Ford press release from earlier this year when the announcement was first made that they'd be offering the systems (from multiple, qualified suppliers) on half-ton pickups, click here.