What New MPG Standards Will Mean for Heavy-Duty Pickups and Vans

Ford Super Duty

Tougher federal fuel-economy standards are coming to heavy-duty pickups, full-size vans, and other large rigs, bringing with them big changes to the nation’s truck fleet. The new proposed standards—which are not yet set into law—call for big vans and medium-/heavy-duty pickups to slash their fuel consumption by a third between now and 2027. We plowed through the EPA’s 1329 pages of documents to get a picture of the greener, higher-tech truck market that’s likely to emerge over the next 12 years.

A Brief Primer on CAFE Regulations

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were born in response to the disastrous 1970s oil embargo by the Arab OPEC nations and resulting gas shortages. Starting with the 1978 model year, the EPA imposed a minimum fuel-economy requirement on every mainstream manufacturer.

Automakers had to average the combined (55 percent city, 45 percent highway) fuel economy for every car and light truck in their fleet. If they met or exceeded the prescribed standard for that year, they earned credits to offset thirstier vehicles from past or future years. If they fell short, as most German brands regularly did until a few years ago, they paid fines and walked away. All automakers had to meet the same number, with trucks at correspondingly lower targets. Really big trucks—everything from F-250s to 18-wheelers—were excluded; they didn’t have to answer to anyone on fuel economy.

In 2010, the EPA shifted CAFE into its broader climate-change policies. For the 2011 model year, manufacturers now had to meet variable, company-specific averages based on their lineup’s production volume and the physical size of each model. Automakers could avoid fines by buying credits from competing automakers with excess credits (the selling of which has become a significant income source for companies like Tesla). For the first time ever, heavy-duty trucks and vans were included as well, except they would be regulated by a weighted sum of their payload and towing capacities, not by actual size. The scale at which larger trucks can burn more fuel than smaller trucks is linear, not curved, so that automakers have no pressure to end production of their most capable models.

Automakers have no pressure to end production of their most capable models.

The latest “Phase 2″ proposal works in the same way. Diesel and gasoline trucks get rated separately, with 20-percent lower numbers for gasoline. To avoid unintended exaggeration, we’ve lowered every miles-per-gallon (mpg) stat in this story to what you might actually see on a window sticker. The EPA and NHTSA continue to base CAFE standards on the original city and highway tests from the 1970s, not the latest tests that lowered mpg results starting for the 2008 model year. To further complicate things, the EPA only publishes a few mileage figures for new heavy-duty vans. It doesn’t publish any data on heavy-duty pickups or require manufacturers to display the numbers on the window sticker.

Ready or Not, Heavy-Duty Hybrids Must Roll Out

Averaged across GM, Fiat-Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, and Daimler, the EPA wants heavy-duty pickups and vans to reach a combined 16 mpg in 2027 versus 12 mpg in 2016, the first model year the “Phase 1″ rules go into effect. That’s a whopping 33 percent increase in efficiency. It won’t be achieved through a simple engine stop-start system. For example, a 2015 Chevrolet Express 2500 passenger van that gets 12 mpg combined today will need to reach 15 mpg combined for 2027. Within two model years, a gasoline Ford F-250 4×2 has to achieve 11 mpg (roughly what it does now) and 13 mpg in 2027. A Ram 3500 dualie needs to go from 9 mpg for 2016 to 11 mpg for 2027.

2015 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Denali 4x4 Crew Cab

Ford’s aluminum F-150 and its downsized turbocharged engines—still derided today by some competitors as a gamble—may become the absolute minimum strategies required to pass the goal line. And while the agency doesn’t officially mandate any specific technology, it’s all but requiring electrification on next-gen heavy-duty trucks and vans. As the EPA sees it, manufacturers need to install full-hybrid powertrains in at least eight percent of all heavy-duty pickups and vans by 2027. That’s a tall order: Even after a decade and a half in the market, hybrid cars have barely crested three percent of annual U.S. auto sales. Regarding gasoline heavy-duty pickups, the EPA is proposing that manufacturers sell at least a quarter of them as full hybrids and two-fifths as mild hybrids (with limited-to-no electric driving). The agency has boldly suggested that GM sell half of its gasoline heavy-duty pickups as hybrids by 2027—and that GM sell a hybrid truck for every four in its entire heavy-duty fleet by 2030.

GM’s last hybrid pickups, built until 2013, posted 25 percent greater city ratings than the normal half-tonners. But the tradeoffs in acceleration and towing made them expensive statuary in most showrooms. Even if buyers get over durability fears, heavy-duty hybrid powertrains don’t yet offer comparable performance and capability. Indeed, the EPA expects automakers to develop hybrid powertrains without smaller engines to avoid the inevitable power loss when the batteries drain under load. In order to spur their development, the EPA is letting each fuel-cell, hybrid, and all-electric pickup count as 1.5 vehicles toward a manufacturer’s total CAFE credits.

2010 Chevrolet Express

Eight-cylinder vans also appear to be not long for this world. The EPA explicitly asks GM to kill the Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana and “replace it with an as-yet-to-be-designed European-style van similar to its competitor’s products.” GM is in the worst spot on fuel efficiency, the agency says, since it relies on older V-8 vans, has not introduced significant weight reduction, and has not proposed smaller turbo sixes (although it should be noted that the aluminum-body F-150 EcoBoost V-6 returns close to the same mileage as a Silverado V-8). By 2021, the EPA estimates GM will have to add $770 of new fuel-saving tech to each heavy-duty pickup and van—or about triple what Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, and Nissan will need to spend based on their total sales.

More Reasonable, Car-Like Tech Is Coming, But at What Cost?

While manufacturers can still sell plenty of underperforming trucks—remember, CAFE rules let manufacturers trade credits, in addition to applying excess credits to cover five model years ahead—there won’t be enough credits to trade without significant sales of higher-efficiency models elsewhere in the line. Fortunately, automakers can go a long way toward achieving the CAFE requirements by adopting fuel-saving tech they’re already using throughout the light-duty segment: eight-speed transmissions, variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation, turbocharging, reduced friction, low-rolling-resistance tires, axle disconnects, and replacing hydraulic and engine-driven accessories with electric ones, as well as good, old-fashioned aerodynamic refinements and weight reduction. The EPA wants to give brownie points to active aerodynamics, auto stop-start systems, solar panels to power the climate-control system, and LED lighting. None of this is impossible in the near term. Further out, homogenous compression charge ignition (HCCI) and lean-burn engines that would make gasoline nearly as efficient as diesel also may be in the mix.

Cost, however, is a concern. The Detroit Three make the bulk of their profits through truck sales, and any new technology that eats into those margins or prices a truck too high won’t go over well with investors. The EPA recognizes that automakers haven’t traditionally updated heavy-duty models with the same frequency as their other products, and that current product-planning cycles do not incorporate these new proposals. After automakers submit their comments and the EPA finalizes the ruling, we’ll see what concessions were made. We’re not betting on seeing a solar-paneled, plug-in-hybrid Ram dualie anytime soon, but heavy-duty trucks will look more like their light-duty brethren in their use of technology and their attention to fuel consumption.

2013 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty


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