Losing weight is easy, if you believe all the extraneous gym goers populating local workout facilities in the weeks immediately following New Year's Day. Pickup truck builders know the task of shedding the pounds will be a difficult proposition, but it's a goal that is vitally important in the segment's future.
Unlike passenger cars, trucks actually need much of the weight they currently carry on their square bodies. For years, copious amounts of iron and steel have kept pickups durable, reliable, and capable of rigorous duty, but inbound Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for 2016 mean Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have a rapidly closing window to get more fuel-efficient offerings on the road. And it's not as simple as slapping on a forced-induction, small-displacement engine and a transmission with tall gearing.
From 2000 to 2010, average truck weight has jumped 22 percent, thanks to the multiplication of safety, electronic, and comfort features, plus consumer preference for crew cabs with larger cabins. Over the same time period, truck fuel economy gained just 2 percent, and the current CAFE limit in 2010 is 24.9 mpg.
By the 2016 model year, the light-truck group will have to achieve 30 mpg (fleets as a whole must reach 35.5 mpg) or automakers face penalties. The remaining compact/midsize pickups on the United States market may find their jobs to not be so difficult but the bread-and-butter half-ton, full-size range has to start working out.
The Chevrolet Silverado and its GMC Sierra twin are on track for a completely new model in 2014 and will showcase the strategies employed by one of the world's largest automakers.
"It's a tough task, but we're facing it as grown-ups," said Rick Spina, GM's full-size truck chief. "We're going to do everything we can to keep the customer from realizing we've had to make changes in a fundamental way."
According to Spina, the Silverado and Sierra will lose about 500 pounds by 2016, and possibly a total of 1000 pounds for the early 2020s. Strengthened aluminum and magnesium frames are in the works for later generations, and the use of blown-in insulation foam instead of normal padding is rising in application.
Entering 2011, Ford has been especially aggressive with its significantly overhauled powertrain lineup for the perennially top-selling F-150. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 is being touted as the economical engine of choice for towers/haulers (EPA highway rating estimated to meet or exceed 25 mpg), though the price premium and six-cylinder stigma (don't tell the Cummins crew) has meant resistance.
Team Blue Oval is reportedly looking into magnesium-alloy frames and aluminum body panels for the next-gen F-150, which could yield 800 pounds in savings.
In addition to weight savings, truck builders are also looking into cleaning up aerodynamics and smoothing airflow. With as large as a frontal area as many trucks possess, designers and engineers will have to collaborate to an even greater extent to ensure there's no compromise in engine cooling demands, road and wind noise, or aesthetics. Marketing to the strongly traditional truck market means you can't make too many obvious changes, after all.
And then there's the price. Aluminum and magnesium may not seem exotic when seen on the periodic table of elements, but the price they command on the free market has been a major hindrance to their widespread implantation in all types of vehicles. Automakers can't afford to get it wrong when it comes to CAFE, however, and we can only hope truck prices don't balloon out of the realm of normalcy in the future.
Source: Automotive News (Subscription required)