WASHINGTON - I was the laughingstock at a recent gathering of Washington-area automotive journalists. Most of them showed up in the latest, fastest cars with the most horsepower. I arrived at the event at suburban River Farm in a propane-powered Ford F-150 pickup truck.
"Dang, Warren," said Victor, one of my black colleagues. "Man, what's up with you and that truck? This used be a plantation, brother. But we're here as guests, not field-hands. What are you doing in a propane work truck?"
He wasn't the only one. Another fellow scribe asked if I was "going country." Another suggested that, having been reared in Louisiana, I did not know that the motorized world had turned to gasoline and was now considering electricity and hydrogen as alternative fuels.
"At least you could have found something that runs on diesel, dude. That's hipper than propane," said Alvin, a freelance automotive writer.
Brian Feehan, vice president for engine fuels programs at the Washington-based Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), has heard it all before. Outside of the Deep South and parts of the Midwest where propane fuel is popular, propane does not get much respect, he conceded.
But that might be changing, largely thanks to high gasoline and diesel prices and weather-caused shortages of those fuels in the Gulf Coast and neighboring states, Feehan said.
"We're absolutely getting more demand for propane as a motor fuel," Feehan said. "It costs less and burns cleaner than gasoline."
Propane, like gasoline, is a petroleum-derived, carbon-based fuel. It is normally available as a gas. But it is often used in vehicles as liquefied petroleum gas, a compressed combination of propane and several additives.
Propane's popularity throughout much of the South and in farming communities, where incomes tend to be lower than those in the urban centers of the Northeast and West Coast, stems from its more affordable pricing.
In comparison with unleaded regular gasoline, currently priced at about $3.50 a gallon in the Washington metropolitan area, propane's equivalent cost is $2.10 a gallon, according PERC's numbers.
What propane lacks is the massive fueling infrastructure of gasoline. In areas such as Washington, where finding and filling up with liquefied petroleum gas is less than convenient, that means driving around in vehicles with extra-large propane tanks, such as the one taking up space in the cargo bed of the F-150 pickup I drove.
But Feehan and other propane fuel advocates say that problem will be short-lived, largely thanks to the long-term popularity of propane in many rural communities and the growing demand for cleaner, less expensive fuels everywhere.
Propane, for example, fuels an estimated 1,100 cabs in Las Vegas and almost four times that number in Shanghai. Worldwide, more than 10 million vehicles run on propane, which has a higher octane rating and tends to burn more completely - thus, more cleanly - than gasoline.
In the United States, PERC and its allies are pushing for increased use of propane-powered vehicles among commercial and government fleet vehicle operators, including city and school bus fleets sponsored by municipal governments. Setting up a fueling infrastructure for those fleets, many of which run within a dedicated 100-mile radius, is easier than establishing one to serve the privately owned passenger-vehicle market, Feehan said.
Besides, he said, commercial and government fleet operators think using propane to get a bigger, cleaner bang for their buck is cool. Judging from my colleagues' reaction to my F-150 propane truck, engineered by Roush Industries of Livonia, Mich., individual consumers, especially city-bred sophisticates, haven't gotten there yet.
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