Good news and bad news about pickup trucks

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A standardized way of determining towing capacity as well as higher mileage demands all seemed to descend on pickup trucks last week, leading us to speculate on the future impact to our boating businesses.

First, the apparent good news – The Detroit Free Press reported the Society of Automotive Engineers successfully convinced the major vehicle makers to use a single standard test to determine the towing capacity of its full-size pickup trucks. The standard is expected to be fully adopted by the end of 2013, with some makers likely to apply it sooner. Toyota, for example, says it is already using the new standard for its Tundra.

Currently, absent an industry standard, each manufacturer uses whatever criteria they want, often embellishing the maximum towing capacity of their pickups (go figure!) For example, one maker might assume only a 150-pound driver is in the truck. But, realistically, the driver is likely heavier and other passengers are probably in the cab, too. Add to that some extra cargo that could be in the bed and it all means the truck's actual towing capacity is lower. This makes it just about impossible for consumers to compare truck towing performances.

While other performance criteria, like engine horsepower, are standard across the auto industry, the fact that towing capacity has never been comparable has put our boat sales teams in awkward positions particularly when asked by a prospect about suitable tow vehicles or whether their current vehicle could tow the boat they might buy. But soon, for the first time, our sales teams will be able to offer customers comparable answers.

Now the bad news – concerning standards of a different kind, the White House upped the ante on CAFÉ standards to 54.5 mpg for cars and light trucks built between 2017 and 2025. These new requirements will likely force significant design and powertrain changes in future pickups.

More specifically, while exact annual fuel economy targets have not been set, yet, the current light truck CAFÉ standards are 25.4 for 2012, rising to 28.8 mpg by 2016. They’re expected to be over 40 mpg by 2025, up 60 percent over the next 13 years. CAFE numbers are calculated using a different formula than EPA mileage figures found on a truck's window sticker, but here's an illustration of the effect of the new rules.

The most popular selling light truck models today are half-ton pickups. For example, a 2011 Ford F-150 with two-wheel drive and 3.7-liter V-6 engine has a combined city/highway rating of 19 mpg today. That same pickup will have to achieve 60 percent better mileage or 30 mpg combined by 2025.

Can truck makers produce a 30 mpg combined half-ton? No doubt they will. But we probably should expect they’ll be significantly different than today. For example, more weight reduction, already important in pickups, could result in a shift of frame and body structure materials from metals to more lightweight materials like composites and plastics. Powertrains could feature extensive electrification and hybridization. Four-cylinder diesels, in research at Cummins now, are a strong possibility. Interestingly, one auto blogger speculates that the half-ton of the future will be much more aerodynamic, the “tough” look will be gone, and it will weigh at least 25 percent less than today’s pickups!

So, while we in boating will soon have long-needed standardized vehicle towing capacity data, the future of that capacity is, to say the least, an open-ended question now.

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