Automakers Developing Significantly Lighter Trucks to Meet New Fuel Economy Standards

Reuters is reporting that major automakers are tirelessly working on reducing the weight of future generation pickup trucks, in order to meet stricter fuel economy standards without sacrificing key abilities, such as power, payload capacity or towing capability.

Until 2016, when the new mandates take effect, manufacturers must reach an average fleet economy of 35.5 mpg (6.63 lt/100 km), while light trucks will have to return around 30 mpg or 7.84 lt/100 km. Given that around 50 per cent of vehicles sold in the U.S. in the first 11 months of the year were light trucks, it’s clear that the likes of Ford and GM have to act fast.

One way of improving fleet economy is by launching EVs and hybrids, but that’s not enough. The average weight in the pickup segment is nearly 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) and it’s critical to reduce it if the new guidelines are to be met.

Most of the bulk is due to added comfort, electronic and safety features, which made America’s “workhorses” more enjoyable to own over the past decade. But the same equipment also increased weight by 22%, while fuel economy boost was just 2 percent.

To eliminate the aforementioned added features is not an option, as buyers certainly won’t tolerate poorly equipped or less safe products. Same goes for the powerful engines and solid structures, which define the pickup trucks. That leaves makers with just one option: the use of lighter materials, but comparable in strength or other qualities to traditional solutions.

GM is spearheading these efforts with its upcoming Chevrolet Silverado series, due to arrive in 2014. According to the plan, the Chevy trucks are going to be 500 pounds (227 kg) lighter by 2016, while further reductions are expected in the next decade.

To achieve this, engineers plan to use alongside other solutions, blown-in foam as sound deadening material, instead of a cheaper, but heavier, pad.

“It's a tough task, but we're facing it as grown-ups”, said Rick Spina, who leads full-size truck development for GM. “We're going to do everything we can to keep the customer from realizing we've had to make changes in a fundamental way”.

Meanwhile, Ford is reportedly planning to implement a magnesium alloy frame and aluminum body panels for the next generation F-150. Inside sources revealed that these measures could shave as much as 800 pounds (363 kg) off its hot-selling truck series. GM will also use similar lightweight materials for its trucks according to Rick Spina.

However, building the lightweight trucks is one thing and marketing them, another. Lightweight materials cost more and pickup truck prices are likely to increase, which could affect sales. One thing is certain, though: the U.S. government is keen to further reduce overall fleet consumption, as automakers may have to achieve CAFE standards of 62 mpg (3.79 lt/100 km) by 2025.

By Csaba Daradics

Source: Reuters