It seems like only yesterday when the average pickup truck barely got 10 mpg on the highway, was made of heavy steel body panels and was about as aerodynamic as a brick. Now pickups are lighter, more aerodynamic and highway fuel economy hovers near 30 mpg highway. The two-wheel-drive crew-cab mid-size Chevrolet Colorado powered by the turbo-diesel 2.8-liter inline four-cylinder actually gets 30 mpg highway.
The rapid pace of fuel-economy improvements had us wondering just how far manufacturers will be able to push the three-box design — hood, cab and bed — to achieve better fuel economy. Is surpassing the 30 mpg highway threshold possible? The short answer is yes. Here's how.
1. Continue to Push Improvements
Automakers can push through the current barrier by simply continuing to do what they've been doing with structural design, smarter multispeed transmissions and engine development.
The move to aluminum and high-strength, lighter steel has resulted in hundreds of pounds of weight savings for the Ford F-150 and . With the continued advancements in both new and traditional materials, we think its possible to find more weight savings.
Multispeed transmissions also help improve fuel-economy ratings. While pickups used to sport "three-on-the-tree" or "four-on-the-floor" transmissions, they're now getting eight-, nine- and 10-speed transmissions. Also, pickups may see improved fuel economy with the addition of an Eco mode, automatic stop-start or cylinder deactivation on big engines (already found in the 2017 Ram 2500/3500 and GM half tons). GM expects a 15 percent fuel-economy increase through the Dynamic Skip Fire ignition system it's developing.
Finally, truckmakers can improve gas engines to achieve better fuel economy. Toyota's use of the D4S and the Atkinson cycle for the mid-size Tacoma is one example, and the growth of smaller displacement single- and turbo-charged engines are other examples.
2. Diesel and/or Electric Hybrid
Another way for pickup truck makers to improve fuel economy is to develop a diesel-electric hybrid. On paper, this system seems to combine the best of both worlds by pairing the low-end grunt and fuel economy of a diesel engine with a hybrid system for either acceleration assist or full driving motivation. The challenge of this system is the extra weight both power sources bring to the chassis.
Then there's the cost of these two systems. Sure, we now live in a world with a nearly $100,000 , but automakers seem resistant to charging premium prices for low-volume powertrains. Instead, the big truckmakers emphasize luxurious interiors that customers can touch every moment they're sitting in their truck. Powertrain complexity, in terms of maintenance fees, could also be a limiting factor.
3. Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Pickups
The last real possibility for big improvements in pickup fuel economy is a hydrogen fuel-cell system such as the one Toyota is testing in its cars and semitruck. This system combines the low-end torque found in an electric hybrid with a relatively cheap and renewable energy source — hydrogen.
The benefits of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are many, the most significant being zero emissions (the vehicle emits only water vapor out the tailpipe) and a refillable fuel source similar to gas. Once fuel-cell infrastructure is in place, range anxiety will all but disappear. Fuel-cell systems also are lighter than diesels, hybrids or big V-8s. Depending on the chassis, that weight savings could be put right back into payload capacity. Toyota already is testing a fuel-cellTundra.
Then there's the fuel economy of a fuel-cell vehicle. The 2017 Mirai, Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell sedan, is already on sale. Compare it to the similarly sized Toyota Camry, and the Mirai offers double the four-cylinder Camry's highway mpg: 67 mpg versus 33.
Of course, advances such as this carry a hefty price tag, so cost will be an issue. The 2018 Mirai has a starting price of more than $58,000, while gasoline, diesel or hybrid vehicles can be had for much less than that.
As hydrogen fuel-cell technology becomes more common, the price difference will likely shrink. Toyota has speculated that by 2025, a hydrogen fuel-cell car will cost the same as a hybrid or electric vehicle.
We're confident there are plenty of alternative powertrains to get us past the 30 mpg highway threshold. But the question is which one will achieve consumer acceptance? No doubt all the truckmakers want to offer their buyers better fuel economy, but which manufacturers will do it at a reasonable cost?