By Larry Edsall
Let’s say it’s autumn 2024, and you’re hungry for a new pickup truck. So you decide to stop at Uncle Sam’s Roadside Cafe to check out the menu and see what’s available.
Now, you love your good ol’ long-bed, crew-cab 4x4 Tonka-like truck with its big, snorting V-8 engine and its pull-the-world-along trailer hitch. But it’s finally as worn out as that old pair of work boots you leave out on the porch because your wife says they stink up the house if you bring them inside.
Or maybe your truck is still in good running order, but you’re the guy who’s lived on a meat and potatoes diet all his life but has been told by his wife and doctor that it’s time to learn to like tofu and yogurt, and that cargo rating and towing capacity aren’t as important as fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions.
And while we’re looking at the numbers -- be they blood pressure readings or gas mileage figures -- Uncle Sam has pretty much mandated that each automaker’s corporate average fuel economy needs to be at 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year, and you don’t have much choice but to open the CAFE menu and see if there’s anything you’re willing to swallow.
What's the Impact on us?
Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? And yet, right there on the menu, you’ll find an array of full-size pickup truck choices that not only meet fuel economy and greenhouse gas regulations, but they still can carry a bed full of rocks or tow your boat, camper or toy hauler. How can this be possible?
There are several reasons, including the fact that automotive engineers have a history of meeting whatever sort of standards that governments around the world have thrust upon them. And not only have they met those standards, but while they’re at it they have also found ways to keep cars and trucks fun and fully functional.
Consider that way back in, say, the first decade of the 21st century, Detroit produced factory hot-rodded Camaros and Mustangs and Challengers that were clean and green and yet more powerful and faster and far better-handling and much safer than anything from the revered muscle car era.
Not only that, but 13 major automakers -- companies that account for 90 percent of the American new-vehicle fleet -- have endorsed the latest federal regulations, and that pretty much indicates that they’re confident they will be able to comply.
Don't be frightened
And here’s another reason: Don’t let that 54.5 mpg CAFE figure frighten you. Somewhere in the 1,300 pages of new regulations from the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a chart that includes targets for things such as fuel economy and emissions for specific types of vehicles. Take into account projected sales figures and market mix, and you’ll hit the 54.5-mpg figure. But the recipe also contains specific ingredients (i.e., mileage targets). For example, the figure for compact cars such as the Honda Fit is 61.1 mpg. It’s 48.0 mpg for full-size sedans such as the Chrysler 300, and 47.5 mpg for what the government calls a “small SUV” (think Ford Escape).
What’s the number for full-size pickup trucks? Under “Table 2: Model Year 2025 CO2 and Fuel Economy Targets for Representative MY 2012 Vehicles,” an extended-cab Chevrolet Silverado with a 6.5-foot bed is used as an example, and the table suggests that the 2025 version of that same truck should average 33.0 mpg while emitting no more than 252 grams of carbon dioxide per mile traveled.
By the way, that CO2 figure is hugely important. For one thing, the 10-page executive summary of the 1,230 pages of proposed regulations is entitled “EPA and NHTSA Set Standards to Reduce Greenhouse Gases and Improve Fuel Economy for Model Years 2017-2025 Cars and Light Trucks.” Note that “greenhouse gases” is mentioned first.
Page 8 of that summary notes that there are “incentives for advanced technologies including hybridization for full-size pickup trucks.” Although the final language has yet to be established, the text below that heading says the EPA is working on incentives for an automaker that applies “advanced technologies” such as hybrid powertrains or alternative fueling to a certain percentage of its pickup trucks. That percentage appears to start at around 10 to 20 percent for the 2017 model year and increase in the following years.
Supply and demand
There also are incentives for enhancing the efficiency of air-conditioning systems, which the government sees as a big producer of greenhouse gases. More efficient air conditioning means fewer emissions and even better fuel economy because such systems will use less energy to operate. Clean up your act, and you might be able to fudge on your mpg number.
If you’re wondering why all this is happening in the first place, the summary of the new regulations notes that “light-duty vehicles are ... responsible for nearly 60 percent of U.S. transportation-related petroleum use and GHG emissions.” The target for these new regulations is to double fuel efficiency and halve the amount of oil we import from OPEC countries.
Using less fuel lowers demand, the feds note, and the summary anticipates that reduced demand will reduce pump prices by around $1 per gallon. The summary suggests that the equipment changes needed to meet the new regulations will add some $1,800 to the average vehicle price, but the resulting fuel savings over the life of such vehicles will be $6,000 or more. And those figures don’t include the health-care cost savings from inhaling cleaner air.
Although engineering and installing the needed equipment are doable, the big issue, according to a spokesman for the automakers, is persuading the car- and truck-buying public to spend that extra $1,800 (or whatever the actual figure may be a dozen years from now).
“It’s important to remember that CAFE doesn’t measure what we built as much as what we sell,” says Wade Newton, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that includes a dozen foreign and domestic automakers. “There is no one standing at a factory to say you turn out this many vehicles and here’s the mileage. It’s what consumers purchase [that determines CAFE compliance].”
Guiding the Marketplace
What the automakers fear, he said, is that they’ll build CAFE-compliant vehicles but that, unlike in the baseball movie, the consumers will not come, that those vehicles will sit on dealers’ lots.
“New technology costs more than the technology it replaces,” Newton says. “It’s always a challenge for automakers to add new technology in a way so it doesn’t put the price of the product beyond the consumers’ reach.”
And it does no good, he adds, for such vehicles to be parked in showrooms instead “of being out in the traffic flow giving us the benefit of the technology.
“Consumers often will stay in their old vehicle that doesn’t have safety or other technologies that new vehicles have,” he says.
Meeting CAFE or other such regulations, Newton says, is “more a marketing challenge than an engineering challenge,” but the engineering challenge remains daunting. “Every automaker has expressed what a hard job it’s going to be to meet the new fuel economy standards,” Newton says, adding that while working toward the 2025 model-year targets, the automakers want the feds to include a midterm review of targets in the final regulations. That review, he says, should include factors beyond the automakers’ control, including consumer trends and even weather emergencies that can spike the price of fuel or increase the demand for pickup trucks needed to rebuild stricken areas.
Automakers are adept at looking six, seven or eight years down the road, Newton says, but the new regulations are forcing them to anticipate targets twice as far in the future.
And don’t’ forget that even in 2025, people will still need things such as towing capacity and four-wheel drive.
There is hope
Remember that 33.0 mpg figure? For the 2012 model year, Ford launched an F-150 with a 365-horsepower, turbocharged V-6 EcoBoost engine that has a maximum tow rating of 11,300 pounds and rated at 16 mpg in the city and at 22 mpg on the highway.
Then, for the 2013 model year, Chrysler’s Ram 1500 comes with a normally aspirated 300-plus-hp V-6 linked to an eight-speed transmission, good for 25 mpg on the highway and 17 or 18 mpg in the city (depending on whether it’s the special HFE model with start/stop engine technology) and enough grunt to pull 6,500 pounds behind its trailer hitch.
Such leapfrogging only will accelerate. And there are new fuels -- remember the emphasis is on greenhouse gases -- to add to the mix, such as diesels, propane, compressed natural gas, even hybrids. Think electric motors with their instant and maximized torque to get you rolling before your V-8 or turbocharged bio-diesel V-6 takes over and pulls that load down the road. No doubt we'll be seeing some interesting technology in the next five years, but how much it will change our pickup trucks over the next 20 remains to be seen.