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Truck buyers to see better fuel economy

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Posted: 12 pm ET

These days, trucks are known more for their hauling capacity and power than their fuel economy, but that may be about to change. A recent article by the Automotive News finds automakers rushing to get their truck divisions on track to meet rising federal fuel economy standards for autos:

Ford now offers a higher-mileage turbocharged V-6 in its F-150 models

Ford now offers a higher-mileage turbocharged V-6 in its F-150 models

Automakers must reach an average fleet fuel economy of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Light trucks -- which were half of all U.S. auto sales in the first 11 months of 2010 -- will have to get about 30 miles per gallon.

The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard for 2010 is 29.2 miles per gallon. For light trucks alone, it is 24.9 miles per gallon, according to government data.

That's a tall order, especially since, according to the Automotive News article, "current pickups weigh an average of nearly 5,000 pounds."

To get to that 30 mpg number, automakers will likely use materials like aluminum to lighten up bulky truck bodies and high-tech drive trains to get good fuel economy without sacrificing the power truck owners want.

That drive to push fuel economy numbers higher in a relatively short timeframe sheds light on why Ford released a high-end turbocharged V-6 for its best-selling F-150 line in 2010 and began touting higher fuel economy in its commercials. Ford is clearly trying to get truck buyers used to the idea that smaller-displacement engines with better technology can provide good enough power to do the things trucks need to do.

One solution automakers may pursue to cut fuel consumption is more extensive use of diesel engines. I think you'll see diesels filtering down from the very top end of most truck lineups into more low- and mid-priced models. Obviously, those low- and mid-priced models won't be sporting turbo-diesel V-10s, but even a 6-cylinder diesel engine can generate plenty of torque, a key component in a truck's hauling capacity, and diesels generally get much better fuel economy than gas counterparts with similarly sized engines.

I see this push for greater fuel economy as a good thing for truck owners. Some truck aficionados will probably bemoan the loss of the all-steel bodies that have traditionally given trucks their do-anything toughness, and they'll have a point: Aluminum is softer than steel, and probably won't hold up quite as well to towing 15,000 pounds year after year. Also, the new technology and materials needed to shave up to 800 pounds off the curb weight of a new truck will probably make trucks more expensive.

But when the dust clears and automotive engineers have had a few years to work on the problem, the end result will likely be powerful, tough trucks that get double the fuel economy of their forebears. After all, with trucks and SUVs comprising about half of all vehicle sales in the U.S., automakers can't afford to produce trucks people don't want to buy.

And there will be a big benefit for car drivers as well: Lighter trucks mean less lethal collisions with smaller cars. I've talked to so many people who won't drive small, fuel-efficient cars because they fear collisions with behemoth trucks; maybe a "stealth" benefit of higher truck fuel economy standards will mean putting some of these fears to bed.

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