Major automakers are scrambling to strip hundreds of pounds off future pickup trucks in an effort to meet new U.S. standards for fuel economy without sacrificing strength or towing capability.
The new mandates take effect in 2016, giving automakers such as Ford and General Motors just one design cycle to make significant changes that will require costly steel substitutes including aluminum, new steel alloys and magnesium.
Automakers are faced with having to pass on those higher costs to consumers who have come to associate mass with performance.
“There is a lot of hand-wringing in the industry right now,” said Dick Schultz, a consultant at Ducker Worldwide and expert in the use of metals in autos. “You can’t afford to be on the wrong side of this thing.”
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.
The updated standards come at a time when auto companies are launching an array of battery-electric, plug-in and hybrid vehicles, which will help the sector reach those new goals.
But reducing the weight of their trucks is also critical to meeting the new guidelines, automakers say.
This represents a significant challenge because of the trucks’ large size and the demand that they be able to handle heavy loads and towing in unforgiving conditions.
Current pickups weigh an average of nearly 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg).