Pickup truck towing standard isn't standard
Rivalry, distrust delay adoption of SAE ratings
Photo credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF PICKUPTRUCKS.COM
Automakers often brag about the towing abilities of their pickups, encouraging shoppers to believe that their vehicles could safely pull almost anything.
The towing claims are effective, moving heavy metal in the single most profitable product segment in the auto industry.
They are also highly dubious. All but one pickup manufacturer refuse to follow standardized towing-capacity tests they all agreed four years ago to adopt for 2013 models -- test procedures that would lower the towing capacity ratings they now claim.
Instead, automakers follow their own test regimens and advertise claims that could encourage customers to push their vehicles beyond safe limits in terms of stopping and control.
The years-long industry effort to develop a voluntary, verifiable, common towing standard is stuck -- trapped by automakers afraid to disarm unilaterally in the middle of a pitched pickup PR battle.
The SAE's J2807 towing test standard, adopted by automakers in 2009 and scheduled to go into effect for all pickups in the 2013 model year, now is being followed in the segment only by Toyota.
What the standardized test procedures mean for a manufacturer is this: If you want to claim that your pickup tows a certain amount of weight, it must do so under the precise conditions spelled out in the standard.
Chrysler Group, General Motors, and segment leader Ford Motor Co. have backed away from their commitments to test their pickups in compliance with the standard. Like Cold War superpowers, they cite a distrust that their competitors will reciprocate among the reasons to delay their agreement from four years ago.
"The customers are the ones that are the biggest losers here," said Mark Williams, editor of Pickuptrucks.com, which has championed the common standard and railed against the failure to implement it. "In the truck world, we understand pissing matches.
"But this isn't about bragging rights. This is about benefiting the people you supposedly serve and making sure they are using your product safely."
So what is the J2807 towing standard?
Put simply, it breaks down vehicle performance under load into three measurable categories: climbing, acceleration and launching. Each category has a specified performance regimen that the pickup must achieve with whatever weight the manufacturer wants to advertise that its truck can handle.
In the launch test, for example, the loaded pickup is put on a steep 12 percent grade -- a rise of 12 feet over 100 feet of road, or like climbing the height of a 22-story building over a half mile. To pass the test, the loaded pickup must be able to travel uphill at least 16 feet from a standstill five times within five minutes, in forward and in reverse.
The other categories are similarly specific and provide verifiable tests that can be duplicated, allowing any manufacturer to verify the claims of both its own vehicles and those of its competitors.
To pass the acceleration test, the vehicle and loaded trailer have 12 seconds to reach 30 mph and a total of 30 seconds to reach 60 mph. The vehicle also must be able to accelerate from 40 mph to 60 mph in less than 18 seconds, all on level ground.
The climbing test requires the vehicle and loaded trailer to ascend 3,000 feet over an 11.4-mile stretch without dropping below 40 mph and with the air conditioning at maximum. The test is based on the Davis Dam grade, a stretch of Arizona road southeast of Las Vegas.
Repeated attempts to speak to the chairman of the SAE committee that wrote the standard were unsuccessful.
The towing standard also applies to other classes of vehicles that can be used for towing -- including cars and SUVs -- as long as the vehicle and its onboard payload weigh less than 13,000 pounds.
The 13,000-pound weight ceiling means most heavy-duty pickups -- the primary vehicles used to haul big trailers -- are excluded. Interestingly, when it was first agreed to in 2007, the standard's weight cutoff was 16,000 pounds but was lowered specifically to keep most heavy-duty pickups exempt.
Williams said accurate assessments of what can be towed safely are important because consumers are always tempted to push a vehicle to its limits.
"It's not about accelerating; it's also about stopping and control," Williams said. Pickuptrucks.com conducts regular side-by-side towing tests of light-duty and heavy-duty pickups that are closely followed by consumers. "Everybody understands that these trucks can do more than these numbers. That's why those maximum towing numbers are so dangerous. In a certain way, it's like a game of chicken."
Rollout of the new towing standard jumped out to an early start in 2010, when Toyota Motor Corp. introduced the 2011 Tundra with tow ratings determined under the new standard. Tundra tow ratings dropped by as much as 400 pounds between the 2010 and 2011 model years, or about 4 percent. Tundra sales dropped by 11 percent in 2011, but the Tundra remained the fifth-place full-sized pickup in the six-pickup segment.
A redesigned 2014 Tundra was introduced last week at the Chicago Auto Show and also complies with the towing standard, a Toyota spokesman said.
Bruce Hunt, Toyota's product planning manager for North American-produced trucks, said Toyota participated in the SAE discussions to write the standard and felt strongly that it needed to live by it.
"Our position going in was that it was really more about the customer," Hunt said. "We felt that if we knew that these standards were out there and we were part of the committee that wrote and adopted them, then we should adopt them."
The new standard is no different from when the EPA introduced new fuel economy standards a few years ago or when the government intervened to end excessive horsepower claims in the 1960s, Toyota argued.
"We decided we need to do this for the customer and not hide behind model changes," Hunt said.
That's not to say Toyota is completely above the fray. Last October, a Toyota Tundra -- the only full-sized pickup to adhere to the towing standard -- pulled a 292,000-pound space shuttle and dolly across a bridge in Los Angeles. The feat is now a prominent feature of the company's pickup advertising.
GM was next up in the pickup product development cycle. Last year it prepared to adopt the new standard for its 2013 model Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, even though it had redesigned pickups planned for the 2014 model year. GM faced the prospect of seeing tow ratings drop on its 2013 models with no mechanical changes to the pickup. But GM was prepared to implement the change anyway.
Then, just as GM prepared to launch the 2013 pickups, Ford announced that it would implement the new standard only as it launched new or redesigned vehicles. That meant the tow ratings on the 2013 F-150 would remain unchanged -- and unverified under the SAE J2807 standard -- until a new F-150 arrived for the 2015 model year.
Mike Levine, a spokesman for Ford, said the J2807 tow ratings were applied to new 2013 vehicles such as the redesigned Escape and Fusion. He also said the standard was a guideline for manufacturers, "not a mandate."
Caught flat-footed by Ford's move, GM scrambled to pull back marketing materials and even reprint owners' manuals to unadopt, temporarily, the standard it had adopted.
In a barely veiled dig at Ford, a GM statement said it was "ready to implement the new ratings when we can do so without creating consumer confusion about comparisons of vehicles commonly used for trailering."
"For example," the statement continued, "key competitors are continuing to use their existing ratings for 2013 model year pickups. Retaining our existing rating system will reduce confusion for dealers and customers." A GM spokeswoman would not disclose how much the tow ratings would decrease if the standard were followed for the 2013 Silverado and Sierra.
The Ram 1500 was re-engineered for the 2013 model year and went on sale at Chrysler Group dealerships last fall. Under the original plan, the new Ram's towing ratings should comply with the SAE standard.
They don't, said Mike Cairns, chief engineer and vehicle line executive for Ram pickups.
"The test procedures and test requirements, we did use," Cairns explained, saying that any adjustment that would need to be made on the 2013 Ram's towing claims would be small. But even though Chrysler had the means and opportunity to follow the standard, it lacked motive, thanks to its crosstown rivals at Ford and GM.
"The Ford and GM Chevy guys have the majority of the market," Cairns said. "We're following the big guys' lead in the marketplace on this."
Dan Bedore, a spokesman for Nissan, confirmed that his company has adopted the same strategy. It has adhered to the new towing standard for the redesign of the 2013 Pathfinder but won't for the Titan until its next redesign.
The failure to implement the J2807 towing standard once again highlights the problems the industry has in regulating itself. When dubious marketing claims in previous decades -- the horsepower wars from the 1960s and overstated fuel economy claims 10 years ago -- grew too great, government regulators stepped in.
The towing capacity downgrades on individual pickups under the SAE standard are likely to only be a few hundred pounds from their currently posted specifications.
But the pressure to maintain market share in the industry's most profitable segment may be too great to overcome, especially as new engine technology pushes towing abilities further than ever.
You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at email@example.com.