GM to Make Natural Gas-Fueled Trucks in '91 : Transportation: The less-polluting vehicles will go to Southern California Gas and other utilities. They will chip in $935,000 for the start-up.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

General Motors Corp. will begin the first commercial production of low-smog, natural gas-powered trucks in early 1991, with the help of $935,000 in start-up money from 10 gas utilities in California, Texas and Colorado, officials said Tuesday.

In the first year, the world's largest auto maker will produce at least 1,000 gas-powered Sierra pickup trucks for sale to utility and commercial fleet customers in California and Texas through its GMC Truck division, GM and gas company officials said.

It also plans to develop other types of natural gas vehicles over the next several years. "We see it as a several-step program, and this is the first step," said Thomas R. Klipstine, a spokesman for GMC Truck.

Initial design, engineering and development of the trucks will be financed in part by the $935,000 from the 10 utilities, including Southern California Gas Co. in Los Angeles, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco and San Diego Gas & Electric. The utilities will also buy many of the first trucks for their fleets. Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a proponent of natural gas vehicles, helped forge the deal.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co., the nation's No. 2 car maker, could make a similar announcement in two to three months, said Roy Rawlings, vice president of marketing for Southern California Gas. The Ford project may include production of the first natural gas-powered passenger car, a Taurus station wagon, for use as a delivery vehicle, Rawlings added.

GM's announcement, made at news conferences in Houston and Burbank, comes a little more than a month after Southern California Gas officials confirmed that GM was close to an agreement on the project to make and market the nation's first original-equipment natural gas vehicles.

The project is sure to give a boost to GM in the race to develop cleaner cars and trucks as federal and state regulators draw up strict new clean air rules. GM has already said it is going ahead with commercial production of the first electric passenger car, the Impact, though it has not said when that will happen.

Air quality officials favor development of natural gas vehicles as a clean alternative to gasoline vehicles. "Natural gas has been found to be one of the cleanest burning fuels available," said Steve Albu, chief of engineering studies at the California Air Resources Board, which is considering some of the strictest emissions standards in the nation.

A natural gas vehicle could reduce the pollutants that form ozone by 65% and carbon monoxide emissions by 90%, said Jennifer Mitchell, director of marketing for San Diego Gas & Electric.

The GM pickups will be developed and manufactured to GM's specifications by PAS Inc., a subcontractor in Troy, Mich. Instead of conventional gasoline tanks, the trucks will carry three 5-foot-long compressed natural gas tanks about 8 to 10 inches in diameter.

A 5.7-liter V-8 engine will be modified for natural gas, said David F. Polletta, general manager of PAS. The pickups will get the equivalent of 15 miles a gallon of gasoline and have a range of roughly 200 miles, he added.

No price has been set for the new trucks, though GM officials said their goal is to keep the price comparable to that of gasoline-powered vehicles. A regular Sierra pickup sells for about $15,000.

Natural gas will cost the equivalent of 70 cents per gallon of gasoline, Rawlings said. The average national price for a gallon of gasoline is about $1.18.

One of the project's sponsors, Natural Fuels Corp. of Denver, plans to build the country's first commercial chain of natural gas fueling stations. Meanwhile, the California utilities involved are all developing more fueling stations, mainly for fleets.

However, there is still only a limited number of such fuel stops, so the first GM trucks will be sold to fleets that leave a central point in the morning and return to the same place at night. The three California utilities will buy about half of the first 1,000 trucks, Southern California Gas spokeswoman Vicki Cho said.

Eventually, however, the national market for GM's natural gas trucks could grow as large as 5,000 to 10,000 trucks a year, Texas' Mauro said. In California, the state Department of Energy is using $382,500 in subsidies to encourage local governments to buy natural gas-powered vehicles. In Texas, the state Legislature has passed laws to promote the use of such vehicles by fleets. "That guarantees GMC a market," Mauro said.

Other partners in the GM program--all in Texas--are El Paso Natural Gas Co., Energas Co., Enron Corp., Entex, Lone Star Gas Co. and Southern Union Co.

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