Today, President Barack Obama officially announced a new federal policy to raise the mandated average gas mileage of cars and trucks, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By 2016, the fleet fuel efficiency standard for all passenger cars will be 39 mpg, and it will be 30 mpg for light trucks and sport utility vehicles. The average of these two equals a passenger-car and light-truck fuel efficiency standard of 35.5 mpg.
So what does this mean for future pickup truck buyers? It depends.
What's still to be determined are the exact rules that will have to be followed to determine fuel economy. First, it's unclear whether manufacturers will have to hit fleet-wide or segment-based goals for their vehicles. Fleet-wide goals would make it more difficult for manufacturers to meet the fuel economy standards if they have a narrow choice of vehicles in their fleet (think Porsche versus Toyota). Second, it hasn't been decided if fuel economy will be based strictly on a vehicle's "footprint," meaning its physical dimensions, or whether another set of "attributes" will be used, such as weight or personal- or commercial-use-only designations.
Still, there are a few things we can start to make educated assumptions about to build a picture of what the pickup truck of 2016 will be like.
Current light-truck fuel economy standards are 23.1 mpg for all SUVs, pickups, vans and crossovers. Hitting 30 mpg will require a 30 percent rise in fuel efficiency. A 2009 Chevrolet Silverado with two-wheel drive has a combined 17 mpg rating. That same Silverado would have to achieve approximately 22.1 mpg combined by 2016, an increase of about 5 mpg.
This means we're likely to see an increase in the number of direct-injection turbocharged gasoline engines in the next few years, and the phase-out of traditional naturally aspirated eight-cylinder engines.
This also increases the odds you'll buy a truck with a hybrid powertrain. The two-wheel-drive 2009 Chevrolet Silverado 2-Mode Hybrid with its 6.0-liter V-8 is rated at 21/22 mpg city/highway today. Combine the Silverado's batteries and electric motors with a direct-injection turbo gas mill, and you're likely well over 22 mpg combined.
What doesn't look like a good option to hit 2016 mileage requirements are diesel engines in light-duty pickups. In fact, this probably means light-duty diesel pickups will never arrive.
The Obama administration has tasked the EPA with determining a grams-per-mile limit on CO2 emissions for vehicles that fall approximately near the mileage requirements. According to a white paper released by the EPA and Department of Transportation today, those limits will be an average of 250 g/mile for all cars and trucks. However, diesel's CO2 emissions per gallon of fuel (22.4 pounds) are higher than that of gasoline (19.4). A diesel-powered light-duty pickup would have to be about 15 percent more efficient than a gas-powered truck to meet both fuel economy standards and CO2 emission standards. A pickup averaging a combined 22 mpg with a gas engine would have to get about 25.3 mpg if it were a diesel.
This doesn't mean the end of diesel pickup trucks, though, at least not any time soon. A government source told us the new regulations will not cover heavy-duty pickup trucks that fall in the 8,500-10,000 pound range. HD pickups are expected to continue to be excluded from CAFE consideration. Perhaps a side effect will be increased sales and market share of HD pickups relative to light-duty pickups, as buyers who need to tow and haul in ranges that a light-duty pickup truck can manage today move up to HD.
The truck of the future is also likely to be much more aerodynamic. Tough-truck looks are likely to disappear to get the best fuel economy possible. We could also see substantial use of composite materials to save weight to improve mileage.
One other factor not discussed in today's fuel economy standards announcements: Tougher crash-test regulations expected in the near future. Pickup trucks are going to have to support stronger roof-crush and side-impact tests that are likely going to require new reinforcements added to their body structures to pass the tests. This will mean more weight. Perhaps all the weight removed for better fuel economy will be replaced by heavier, stronger frames.
There is one certainty in all this: The truck you buy will cost more in the future. The standards are expected to add at least $1,300 on average to the cost of building a vehicle. Obama said drivers would make that back within three years due to savings on gas.
$50,000 plug-in hybrid pickup, anyone?