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Is the Race for Better U.S. Pickup Fuel Economy DEAD?


Is the Race for Better U.S. Pickup Fuel Economy DEAD?Over the last several years, truck makers have been pushing average truck fuel economy to unheard of levels, however, this race to provide the best fuel economy could be coming to an end. The U.S. Transportation Department announced it is going to revise its rules and this could kill a big part of the incentive for truck makers.

Is the Race for Better U.S. Pickup Fuel Economy DEAD?

The current fuel economy king among all trucks is a 2017 Chevrolet Colorado Diesel with 30 MPG highway.

CAFE – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Pickup fuel economy has been a hot-button issue for years with both consumers and the federal government via raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) goals. The CAFE goals were raised significantly after review by the Obama administration. While the 54.5 MPG figure was celebrated by environmental advocates and consumers, it hasn’t been seen in the same light for the automotive industry.

Initially enacted by Congress in 1975 after the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo, the standards were meant to give automakers incentive to build more fuel efficient cars. The rules are pretty complex, yet basically the Federal Government looks at the overall fleet fuel economy of what automakers sold in a year and penalizes them if this average doesn’t meet a predetermined number. Most automakers meet this standard with just a few being issued CAFE fines like Chrysler, Volvo, VW and several luxury makers like Lotus, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, etc…

CAFE targets have had their impact with new cars and trucks becoming more fuel efficient, gasoline usage dropping significantly and automakers making significant strides in alternative fuel technologies like electric, hydrogen-fuel cell and hybrid vehicles.

Is the Race for Better U.S. Pickup Fuel Economy DEAD?

In 10 years, consumers have seen the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado improve from 17/21 to 18/24 city/highway.

Trucks Are More Expensive

While trucks have seen a dramatic increase in fuel economy from the 12-13 MPG days to 26 MPG for gas and 30 MPG for diesel being the top marks, these trucks have also gotten considerably more expensive. 

Simply put, consumers do save money at the pump, they pay more for the vehicle. 

In all fairness, part of the increase in the cost of pickups is also due to additional safety equipment and luxury trim finishes both adding to the overall price. However, turbo-charged powertrains, new engine innovations and additional speed transmissions are expensive to manufacture and develop. These costs are somewhat passed on to the consumer with additional charges, yet automakers still have to recoup their engineering costs.

Is the Race for Better U.S. Pickup Fuel Economy DEAD?

One of the most significant developments in pickup powertrain history is the growth of Ford’s EcoBoost engine portfolio which now includes a 2.7L V6, a 3.5L V6 and a higher output 3.5L V6 for the new 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor.

The End of the Race

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing General Motors, Volkswagen AG , Toyota Motor Corp. and others, is celebrating the review of these standards. They claim the Obama administration didn’t do its due diligence with regards to an environmental review. 

The group argues “facts need to drive public policy, including data on consumer sales, gas prices and costs of technology” in determining the final standards, according to an AutoNews story.

Opening up the rules again for environmental review could have a big impact on the CAFE targets and pickup trucks fuel economy. The truth is consumers aren’t buying electric cars at the rate the Federal Government thought they would (sales still hover around 1% of the total market), consumers are buying more pickups and large SUVs than small cars and getting a gasoline pickup to achieve 30 MPG has turned out to be a pipe dream.

The truth is consumers are buying full-size, crew-cab pickups with 5.0+ V8 engines at a surprising rate. Ford has done the best job at swaying consumers away from this approach with their 3.5L V6 EcoBoost engine, yet V8 sales aren’t going away anytime soon. While Ford is promising a hybrid and diesel F-150, the consumer demand for higher and higher pickup fuel economy seems to be waning as well. 

Also, add in the numerous difficulties automakers have had with overstating fuel economy numbers as well as bringing the more efficient diesel powertrains to market with constant hounding from the EPA and legal groups, the drive for more MPGs is fraught with problems.

In the end, it seems the race for king of fuel economy could be subsiding and a new frontier is emerging – in-cabin technology. With the “torque wars” subsiding years ago and now fuel economy battles seemingly coming to an end, the battle over technology is likely next. Expect Wi-Fi, Apple Carplay, Android Auto and Apps to start to dominate the conversation in the future. These decidedly “non-traditional” truck features will be the next frontier and one that will likely make choosing a pickup have to do more with your cell phone than what it can haul.

Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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