The Ford Transit Connect, which uses gasoline, is the basis for Ford's… (Sam VarnHagen, Associated…)
An Orange County taxi company has become the first in California to put new compressed natural gas-powered Ford Transit Connect Taxis into service.
California Yellow Cab of Orange County said Thursday that it started using the first 10 of 50 Ford CNG-powered taxis it plans to put on the road by 2012.
Yellow Cab of Anaheim has ordered 69 of the vehicles. The CNG taxis are already in use in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York and St. Louis. They cost about $35,000.
The taxis are based on the gasoline-powered version of the Transit Connect, a small van popular as a delivery or commercial vehicle. BAF Technologies in Dallas is retrofitting the taxis as natural gas vehicles certified by the California Air Resources Board.
The board encourages the use of vehicles powered by natural gas because they are less polluting than autos with standard gasoline engines. Taxi companies and other businesses like them because natural gas costs less than gasoline.
"We have a situation here in Orange County where the per-gallon equivalent of CNG is almost $2 less than the price of a gallon of traditional fuel," said Tim Conlon, president and general manager of California Yellow Cab. "Our goal is to convert our entire fleet to alternative fuels."
Orange County has 30 CNG filling stations.
Although natural gas is less expensive and less polluting, CNG-powered cars have not caught on among everyday drivers. Honda is the only major automaker selling a natural gas passenger car in the U.S.: a version of the Civic compact sedan.
This year, Honda is coming out with a new generation of the CNG-fueled Civic, known as the GX model, but it expects to sell only about 2,000. Some drivers buy the vehicles solely because the cars are eligible for carpool lane permits in California.
Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally told The Times this year that natural gas technology hasn't caught on domestically because automakers find it too difficult to make a cost-competitive passenger car with the type of trunk space and interior that consumers expect. Compressed gas tanks take more room in a car than conventional gasoline tanks.
Depending on state regulations, a standard passenger car can be converted to use natural gas for about $6,000.
But in California, the conversion can cost triple that amount because of stringent Air Resources Board regulations and certifications to ensure that the modified vehicle does not produce more emissions than the standard gasoline model.
Still, CNG is gaining popularity as a fuel for cabs as well as for commercial and municipal vehicles, such as delivery vans, garbage trucks and buses, according to auto industry executives and transit officials.