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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 12:44 GMT
Are gas-powered cars the future?
Motorist refilling, Calor
Motorist uses Britain's newest LPG refill point
UK tax breaks have made LPG, a greener alternative to petrol, increasingly attractive to motorists. But as the 1,000th LPG refuelling site opens in Britain, could it ever dominate the average forecourt?

There's no doubt about it, if we were all zipping around in gas-powered cars the world would be a cleaner, greener place.

This is not as implausible as it might first sound. Gas petroleum (LPG or liquefied petroleum gas) is a reality, and has been for many years.

Queue of cars, PA
Will drivers be queuing up for gas-petrol?
It's half the cost of conventional petrol or diesel, the emissions are less harmful and just about any normal car can be converted to run on gas.

So far the roll-out has been rather sluggish but parts of the motoring world are starting to sit up and take notice. This week, according to LPG supplier Calor Automotive, the 1,000th gas-refuelling site in Britain was opened - at a Shell garage in Ipswich.

At the same time, the government has extended its programme to help motorists with the cost of converting to gas. Grants of up to 60% of the cost of engine modification are now available for cars up to five years old.

So, given the benefits of LPG, also commonly known as "autogas", will it eventually see off old fuels like petrol and diesel?

Cab converts

LPG is certainly more common in some other countries. All the taxis in Tokyo run on autogas. In Italy more than a million vehicles accept gas, there are almost half-a-million in Australia and 360,000 in the Netherlands.

Govt grant
Under Powershift initiative, grants available for up to 75% of conversion cost to LPG
In Britain, the figure is more like 50,000, and many of these are dual-fuel - vehicles that accept petrol and gas. But industry experts believe demand will rise rapidly as motorists begin to see the benefits and pressure grows on car makers to develop cleaner engines.

So far, LPG has been largely restricted to big companies that have their own central refuelling depots for their fleet vehicles.

The cost benefits are plain to see. While tax on petrol has increased markedly in recent years, LPG duty has fallen 73% in the past seven years. What's more, the Treasury has pledged a three-year tax freeze on gas.

It means that on the garage forecourt, a litre of LPG is about 38p - roughly half the price of petrol, although a litre will only take you about three-quarters the distance as the same amount of petrol.

Lower emissions

Calor Automotive claims companies can save up to 40% on running costs by using LPG. On a typical dual-fuel vehicle doing 25,000 miles that works out to an annual saving of about 1,400.

Gas flame , BBC
Competition is heating up
Environmentally, it is kinder than conventional fuel. LPG carbon monoxide emissions are half those of petrol and, according to Calor, carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles previously powered by petrol are 15% less.

LPG also emits less benzene than unleaded fuel and 30,000 times fewer particulates than diesel, as well as less oxides of nitrogen (Nox).

Lately, motor manufacturers have come over to the LPG argument. Vauxhall, Volvo and Ford either already produce or are planning factory-ready dual-fuel models, and according to Richard Child, editor of LPG World, the industry's leading newsletter, these cars perform every bit as well as normal models.

Nevertheless, analysts say autogas will be nothing more than a sideshow in Britain's motor industry.

Not 'The Answer'

Many, such as Professor Garel Rhys, believe it is a temporary answer before fuel-cell technology - which works by combining hydrogen with oxygen - takes over.

It's good for the next 10 or 15 years

Professor Garel Rhys
"[Autogas] is a stopgap not a long-term solution," says Professor Rhys, of Cardiff's Centre for Automotive Research.

"It's good for the next 10 or 15 years, and could take 15 to 25% of the market if the government pushes harder to tax environmentally unfriendly fuels."

Richard Child is even less optimistic, believing LPG would struggle to take 5% of the market in 10 years' time.

The average motorist's innate scepticism about any alternative fuel, the effect on re-sale value and concern among drivers about the relative lack of garages stocking LPG will put most people off, he says.

"Autogas was introduced in Australia in the 70s, when it was seen as an alternative during the fuel crisis," says Mr Child. "But after almost 30 years, autogas cars still only account for 10% of the automotive market."

See also:

12 Apr 01 | Business
'Clean cars' set for boom
20 Jul 00 | Business
Taking the green route
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