Not any more

Calgary firm’s expertise tapped as 3-wheeled gas miser set to launch in India: Photo Gallery, Video

In Canada on August 11, 2010 at 13:36

What has three wheels, is green in more ways than one and is designed to help reduce air pollution in India’s most densely packed cities?

It’s the GC or "Goods Carrier," a prototype delivery vehicle manufactured by Bajaj Auto Ltd. of India.

And although it’s been delivered to Calgary, where local expertise is being tapped to make its compressed natural gas engine even more thrifty and efficient, no one expects Calgary drivers to take the hint and start filling up with the cheap and abundant fuel anytime soon.

"I was driving it yesterday and it’s a squirrely thing to drive," said Jim Perry, president and chief executive of Alternative Fuel Systems.

"There are two wheels in the back and one wheel and a handlebar on the front but it’s got a cab on it so it’s a funny little critter. When I drive it around the neighbourhood here, everybody looks at it and says, ‘What is THAT?’ "

Tuning up natural gas engines for South Asian vehicles is nothing new for Alternative Fuel.

In June, it celebrated the sale of its 20,000th engine controller to an original equipment manufacturer in India, where it has been working with Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra.

No value of the Bajaj contract has been disclosed.

"The challenge with this kind of vehicle is that it’s very inexpensive," said Perry. "The cost pressures are big. You can’t put anything really fancy in there."

He said his small publicly traded company — it employs 11 people — is well-known in India. In fact, he’s got two pickup trucks and a passenger van from Tata Motors parked at the shop now.

Each contract is different. Alternative Fuel works with an Indian partner, Advantek Fuel Systems Pvt. Ltd., to arrive at solutions, with the components sourced from where it makes the most sense. The Calgary company specializes in the computer that governs the engine.

What works in India won’t work here, Perry said.

"The challenge in our part of the world is there are no fuelling stations so there are no vehicles so there are no fuelling stations. It’s a chicken and egg thing," he said.

He added scarcity makes natural gas vehicle fuel more expensive relative to gasoline in Calgary, with three stations, than in, say, Delhi, where there are 200 natural gas fuelling stations.

Kyle Eakins, co-owner of Earth’s Courier, which runs its three vehicles on diesel fuel blended with used deep-fryer grease, agreed that price is king, especially with the current economic uncertainty in Calgary.

"Our initial business plan was: ‘ This business is going to take off because it’s green,’ " he said.

"When we started in 2008, people were buying because of the green initiative, that and the fact diesel and gasoline had gone up to $1.40 per litre and they wanted an alternative," Eakins said.

"(But) in these times, people are looking at what’s cost-effective."

He said the 21/2-year-old company, founded as a school project by Eakins and Gabriel Loas at Mount Royal, is still growing, but its green cred is just one selling point alongside good service and fair prices.

Kurt Enders, vice-president of Checker Transportation Group, said natural gas vehicles have never caught on in Calgary’s taxi business.

"The tanks take up so much room in the trunk, there’s no room for luggage," he pointed out, adding the vehicle-conversion costs are high and there are few public fuelling stations.

"It just doesn’t work for our industry."

Alternative Fuel Systems reported revenue in 2009 of $2.5 million, down from $ 3.9 million in 2008.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald


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