The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

Heads up, D.C.: Here comes pickup lite

COMMENTARY
Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON -- Car companies have a predictable way of hosting politicians at an auto show. They'll usher them straight to their green-car displays. This car is cleaner than ever, they'll say, and that car is safer.

"Oh, and have you seen our electric car?"

Meanwhile, they dance awkwardly around the real engines of the U.S. auto industry -- and the U.S. economy, for that matter: big, powerful pickup trucks.

But this week in Detroit, when Washington's dignitaries arrive at Cobo Center, the Detroit 3 should try this: Grab the visitors by the arms and bring them straight to the pickups. If government officials really want to understand how profoundly the combination of high gasoline prices, strict fuel economy rules and environmental concerns is remaking the industry, they should bypass the button-nose plug-in hybrids and take a long look at the next Ford F-150.

Huge step forward


Right now, no version of the F-150 gets more than 23 mpg. But Ford is promising huge fuel economy gains for the next iteration of its classic truck, thanks to a plan to replace hundreds of pounds of steel with lightweight aluminum. Insiders have told Bloomberg that the truck will get close to 30 mpg on the highway -- more or less what a family sedan got just a few years ago.

It's a single-digit improvement, but a huge step forward for pickup trucks. By the methods used to calculate fuel economy, a small car getting 40 mpg on the highway would need to get 68 mpg to produce the same savings in fuel, money and pollution.

And since the F-150 is so popular, these gains are multiplied across hundreds of thousands of vehicles. Ford sold 763,402 of its F-series pickups in 2013, single-handedly outselling all electric cars (96,702 sold) and hybrids (495,530) on the market. It's possible that the technological changes on the F-150 will do more to reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions than any other car or truck launch in history.

The rapid progress should be a wake-up call to the city dwellers, Washington policy wonks and government officials who see big pickups as an obstacle to lower fuel consumption.

Consider what President Obama had to say about the subject just a couple of years ago. "There is a place for SUVs and trucks," he said at a forum in Cannon Falls, Minn., in 2011. "But as gas prices keep on going up, you have got to understand the market. People are going to try to save money."

With their latest trucks, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Group are proving to the president that there is a place for SUVs and trucks, that they do understand the market and that they can save consumers money.

Chrysler, for its part, has made major changes to its Ram 1500 pickup, adding an eight-speed automatic gearbox and aerodynamic features such as grille shutters and a suspension that lowers at highway speeds.

The Ram now gets up to 20 mpg in combined city and highway driving, up from 16 mpg for the outgoing model. That will save as much fuel, money and pollution as taking a small car from 40 mpg to 80 mpg.

Not just lipstick


Some fuel is still being wasted, of course, but automakers are doing more than just putting lipstick on a three-ton pig. They are striking a balance between consumer demand for tough trucks and societal demand for less fuel consumption.

There will be bureaucrats who believe pickup owners should do much more for the environment by switching to small cars, or taking the subway to the lumberyard. They will say that trucks are starting from such a low bar that their advances don't deserve praise. And there will be some who assume that transformative change can only come in the form of hybrids and electric vehicles.

For them, the continued popularity of big gasoline-fueled pickup trucks and SUVs will be a source of frustration.

But for automakers, the enduring popularity of their highest-profit vehicles -- and the technology that has made them pace-setters in technology and fuel economy -- should be a source of pride.

So when the visitors from Washington arrive, go ahead and say it, Detroit:

"Oh, and have you seen our pickup truck?"

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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