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Summary:

Updated: FuelMaker, the beleaguered firm that made natural gas vehicle fueling stations for home users dubbed “Phill,” has finally found a buyer — well, its assets have. American Honda, the U.S. division of Honda, which partly owned the decade-old Toronto-based company, has been trying to sell […]

phillbanktruptUpdated: FuelMaker, the beleaguered firm that made natural gas vehicle fueling stations for home users dubbed “Phill,” has finally found a buyer — well, its assets have. American Honda, the U.S. division of Honda, which partly owned the decade-old Toronto-based company, has been trying to sell the firm for months — expending “considerable time and effort,” as American Honda put it recently in their statement. Meanwhile FuelMaker ceased operations and started bankruptcy proceedings in April. Well, this morning American Honda says a subsidiary of the automotive holding company Fuel Systems Solutions has bought up the assets and IP of FuelMaker for $7 million an undisclosed sum (it’s got to be very low — it was previously selling for $17 million).

Despite FuelMaker’s best efforts, the natural gas vehicle distribution businesses just failed to take off. The device compresses natural gas from home gas lines, takes about four hours to fill an empty tank after a 50-mile drive (yawn), and costs between $5,500 and $6,000 (sticker shock). But the biggest barrier is clearly that natural gas vehicles are few and far between — Honda’s Civic GX is about the only consumer natural gas car around and can only be bought for $24,590 in select locations in California and New York. There’s more natural gas cars in city and enterprise fleets (AT&T plans to purchase 8,000 of ‘em), but still the market is nascent.

My guess is that in the long run the fate of Phill is up in the air. In a statement, American Honda said that it “fully expects” Fuel Systems Solutions to “both continue the production and sales of the home natural gas refueling appliances, as well as honor service warranties for existing customers.” But that seems more like lip service than anything else.

American Honda seems particularly concerned about not appearing to be the “Who Killed the Electric Car” of the natural gas vehicle world as a few Phill fans and FuelMaker employees started pointing fingers at Honda after FuelMaker ceased operations last month. The tone of this article on The Auto Channel, “Honda Suddenly Kills Fuelmaker In Stunning Move That Outrages CNG Movement,” sums up those claims, and also suggests that Honda has been stifling production of the Honda Civic GX in the same way that GM pulled back from its first electric vehicle lines.

Natural gas distributor Clean Energy Fuels, where T. Boone Pickens is a director and the largest shareholder, had been trying to buy FuelMaker last year, but told us that Honda had stalled the deal by withholding financial information.

  1. Just to offer a correction and some insight – you can actually buy a Honda Civic GX CNG model in far more places than just New York and California. For example, they are available in Florida as well.

    Also, Honda actually loses $4,000 on every GX sold because they are committed to keeping the vehicle affordable. Despite that, they continue production (albeit limited) and increase production year after year. Wouldn’t it be nice if more American automobile manufacturer’s were so generous and supportive of alternative fuels that reduce petroleum dependency?

    FuelMaker had sunk nearly $24m into Research and Development which the company never fully financially recovered from.

    The cost of the Phill is actually about $4k. The price could go as high as $5k installed – but consider that you are factoring in permits, professional installation by someone licensed in plumbing and electrical work and signed off by a GC. $6k is a stretch, but I suppose a distributor could have sold it that high. The sticker shock fades away when you apply basic economics and realize your gasoline expense of $50-$100 a week disappears and your fuel now runs closer to $30 per month.

    A savings of 30% – 50% on fuel costs can certainly pay off that $5k investment nicely. Especially when gasoline hit $4 a gallon last summer (something it is expected to do again within the next year…)

    CNG and alternative fuels could use more supporters. Natural gas vehicles are available – Honda is the only OEM model at this time, but that could change significantly…especially as Fiat unveils 6 new CNG models and takes over Chrysler. Aftermarket conversions are another excellent option. The Ford Focus CNG bi-fuel model can be retrofitted brand new at the dealer level by approved Ford dealers.

    Also, the price tag for FuelMaker closed out at $7m – as has been widely reported.

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  2. Thanks for this. Honda markets them to consumers in NY and CA – if they’re available in other states it would have to be through a fleet deal (Ill double check with Honda about this on Monday). The price I quoted for the Phill for $5500 to $6000 is the cost of the gear plus install and I got directly from FuelMaker. I do see that Fuel Systems Solutions has disclosed the price of the deal (my info was from Honda) so I’ll update the story with the price of the deal.

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  3. I believe Honda also has approved consumer GX dealers in Utah. And, fleet departments can sell the car to virtually anyone they want to.

    The price of Phill was indeed about $4k. I was quoted installation prices from $900 to $2000. Southern California has a $2000 air quality price support paid directly to FM, so my cost for Phill installed was about $3k.

    FM might have been worth more in bankruptcy than before, being able to shed its debt and marketing agreements through that process (hence the sale to an Italian company without having to maintain the distribution agreement with another Italian company).

    Phill may or may not survive the change of ownership, but Phill represented only a tiny percentage of the 14,000 installed Fuelmaker systems, all of which can fill fuel tanks much faster than Phill.

    “Small manufacturers” take new cars and retrofit them with CNG. A list is available here:
    http://www.ngvamerica.org/pdfs/marke…ses.NGVs-a.pdf

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  4. Having your own personal compressor isn’t the only way to drive a Natural Gas car like the GX.

    Before we had home fueling, we filled up at local commercial stations. It takes about as long as filling up a gasoline car and CNG costs significantly less than gasoline. Currently, gasoline in So. Cal. is $2.30 and CNG is about $1.80. In Utah it’s still under $1.00!!! There are enough stations to travel in most of California and Utah. A number of major cities also have clusters of stations. A great map can be found at http://www.cngprices.com

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  5. I don’t understand this discussion, Fuelmaker was not the only one in this business. GTC is in Europe and Middle East the biggest one and said something also about pricing. We know that some companies in US are complain about competitors of fuelmaker but they must look in to themselff. not following about contract and to be the second hand of Fuelmaker.

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  6. I worked for these guys designing the test equipment. I know the phill product inside and out, every nut ans bolt, approval and piece of software.

    You ever hear the punk song: “Some girls just try too hard”.

    The product was pretty innovative, and weirdly fragile, but ahhh you have to sleep sometime. when your making zzzz’s its filling up and saving a fortune. Its a good idea.

    If somebody made a dual fuel car (I don’t care it if hard, spare the details… add some innovating way to get different compression ratios, etc), maybe that would help. Drive cheap Nat gas when you can, switch to gas when your stuck, refule it when you sleep.

    No driveby shootings at the gas station, no ahhh gas station.

    I’ll risk spam and stick my email is the clear. Remove the z and it will work. dan_kolisz@yahoo.com

    So back to “why failed”. I said endlessly “tell them to get lost for 8 weeks, it goes by sea”; (these things are very heavy. for repairs. I said “Use normal PC boards, pee on NASA specs, its not going to Neptune”, no gold plated PCBs.

    The main people I think where technocrats and afraid of customers getting snarky, so they got nothing but good news, and this is, ultimately bullshit logic.

    Your company, as a entity, must first of all, survive to achieve subsequent goals.

    Advanced technology in manufacturing is a last resort. it you can make it on a milling machine for $50, do it. If you NEED some laser whathaveyou next day turn around for $1000, ok, but try to be cheap. Always be cheap!

    They where just too fancy to say: “we can’t afford that. New plan please”.

    God know the people who own these things scream they love them, its like a cult to be near them!

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  7. Ahh, the managers too in general, including CEO’s and that all, were nice, nice people. Tried to be ethical, worried about safety and did someting about it. Good employers too, not just for fancy people but the shop floor guys too.

    I think the hippie logic that makes then think hydrogen is a fuel (don’t get me started), means natural gas is not sexy enough.

    There is a mini movement to add a little bit of Hydrogen to natural gas and brand it as “Natural Hi”.

    How is that for brilliant. The problem is, the public in general, is alarmingly gullable, and remarkably stupid. And the so called environmentalists absolutely do not understand the general idea free energy is hard to extract.

    Fuelmaker, did not know how to trick the public, and Honda was afraid maybe it would backfire. Buit it all comes done to marketing alt fuels that aren;t stupid, as if they are far more magical and sexy then they are.

    Thats it. its sad. if Methane was in use generally, the pollution load to air of humans would be done vastly. But they need ot be tricked into it, because: there stupid.

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  8. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were hybrid gas stations, with both gasoline and natural gas pumps? Well, there are…in Brazil.

    C’mon, U.S…a 3rd world country that has had stations like that for years…from what I can remember, it’s been around for at least 10 years. Cars that run on both gasoline and natural gas and the natural gas that does NOT take hours to fill up…and is much cheaper than gasoline…and is in almost every gas station…so there might not be a need for a Phill in the future…poor Phill. Nice idea, though.

    Now why is it that in 2010 there is only ONE consumer natural gas car around in the States??

    Are we not that abundant on the natural gas resources?? Or the U.S. wants to keep using only gasoline because of other motive$?? The idea of natural gas cars has been around for a pretty long time so that’s kinda safe to assume…

    It’s like what was done with the railroad system in the States…they were “vanished” so Ford could sell more of his cars…nowadays it’s: oh s***, now we’ve realized how much useful that would be…now what? Build railroad systems like in Europe? Really?? Now? How? It’ll be harder to restructure, incorporate, and adapt to that…just like with natural gas…but it’ll still be possible..

    In the end, however, I trust this country to come up with something even better…

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