Truck: An automotive vehicle built for the transportation of goods on its own chassis.
Merriam-Webster makes it sound simple, but obviously a truck is not so easy to describe anymore, largely because inventive minds in the automobile industry keep developing new ways to move goods and people atop four wheels.
The federal government's attempts to define 'truck' and to differentiate it from other kinds of vehicles are found in a variety of laws and consume scores of paragraphs in volumes of fine-print regulations that implement the laws.
Perhaps a modern-day Justice Potter Stewart is needed to declare, as he did with pornography, 'I know it when I see it.'
But even that test might not be sufficient for categorizing DaimlerChrysler's novel PT Cruiser and the unfolding array of new sport wagons. (See story on Page 4i.)
What's most ironic is that the government's windy, legalistic definitions are increasingly irrelevant - with the one glaring exception of fuel-economy rules.
Safety and clean air
Most safety standards, for example, now apply uniformly to the three main categories of vehicles regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They are cars, trucks (meaning pickups) and multipurpose vehicles (vans and sport-utilities).
Steve Kratzke, acting associate administrator of NHTSA, said, 'I can't believe (safety) would be a reason for any vehicle manufacturer to base a vehicle classification decision' anymore.
In addition, the EPA's proposed new clean-air rules would establish seven 'bins' of allowable pollution levels for both cars and trucks. They would replace existing separate categories for light-duty vehicles, which is what the EPA calls cars, and light-duty trucks, the agency name for trucks up to 8,500 pounds gross vehicle weight.
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the environmental group Clean Air Trust, said the trend is a good one. 'There is a lot of logic in treating passenger vehicles as passenger vehicles rather than perpetuating a fiction,' he said.
The glaring exception to the trend, of course, is the federal fuel-economy standards known as CAFE. It is one regulatory scheme in which the divide between cars and trucks continues and is increasingly controversial.
There was little argument when the standards were initiated more than 20 years ago that trucks should be treated differently. Most then were pickups used for work. And they were a comparatively small part of the market.
But now, in the wake of the minivan and sport-utility booms and with trucks accounting for nearly 50 percent of sales, carmakers struggle to meet existing standards while environmental groups clamor for even tougher ones.
No easy fit
All of which brings us back to the PT Cruiser, the latest example of a vehicle that doesn't fit neatly into any existing definition.
DaimlerChrysler's decision to label the Neon-based, retro-styled vehicle a truck has been widely interpreted as a move by the company to help it meet CAFE standards for trucks.
Automakers decide how they want their vehicles categorized. Then the agency responsible for certification - the EPA for emissions and NHTSA for safety and CAFE - determines if the vehicles comply with definitional criteria.
Barry Felrice, DaimlerChrysler's senior manager of regulatory affairs, said with an almost straight face that the company is calling the PT Cruiser a truck because it fits the federal definition of a truck.
He also noted that if it is a Clinton administration goal to improve the fuel economy of trucks, then DaimlerChrysler is contributing to that goal by producing the PT Cruiser as a truck.
Felrice, a former longtime NHTSA official, pointed out that authors of the original CAFE rules tried to build in some flexibility because even then they saw vehicles that were difficult to define.
Prime examples were the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero, carlike vehicles with pickup beds.
'They were trying to predict the future,' Felrice said.
But predicting the future is a treacherous undertaking, especially now.
Even the carmakers that are busy creating new kinds of vehicles grope for names. And so:
Subaru sells a 'sport-utility sedan.'
Mercedes-Benz developed its ML320 as an 'all-activity vehicle.'
Nissan and Ford are the early producers of 'sport-utility trucks' - sport-utilities with small pickup beds.
On the horizon, some say, are European-style tall cars. Or are they mini-minivans? And will that qualify them as trucks? Does it matter?
Arik Efros, brand manager for Ford Motor Co.'s new F-150 SuperCrew, which has a cab for six adults and a nearly full-sized pickup bed, said, 'People can call their vehicle whatever they want to call it.'
But he said pickup buyers, regardless of how they use the vehicles, are the ones who still understand and appreciate what 'truckness' is.
Harry Stoffer is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Washington