What do the new truck regulations mean for pickups?

Published Mon, 2015.08.17 | By

Nic Lutsey

With the Obama administration’s proposed truck efficiency rules, nearly everyone is focused on what they will mean for engines and tractor-trailers. We’re certainly guilty of that, with our technical analyses of engine efficiency, tractor-trailer technology, cost-effectiveness, and trailers. And tractor-trailers are key, to be sure. But it would be a mistake to overlook what the rules mean for heavy-duty pickups and vans. The sales of these trucks, over 600,000 per year, are over half of all the trucks covered by the new rules, and they account for about 15-20% of all U.S. trucks’ fuel use. The rules could have a large and widespread impact.

The proposed regulation would apply to the bigger pickups and vans (e.g., Ford F250/F350, Silverado 2500/3500) that are used for commercial purposes. Their light-duty versions (e.g., F150, 1500 with lower weight capacity), more commonly used by households and commuters, are already regulated under the light-duty CO2 and efficiency standards, and they also have consumer information and fuel economy labels. What do we learn from all the agencies’ analysis in drafting the new rules? We learn a lot.

First of all, there is a lot of newly available data on the commercial pickup and van fleet. As I wrote earlier, it has been nearly impossible to understand the fuel economy of these trucks. You can now download the underlying data from this NHTSA webpage. The data is a little buried in zipped files, but it is there. This allows systematic comparisons of all the models. I’m focusing here on the pickups, but the data also include vans, chassis cabs and cutaways. If you want to see the fuel economy of various gasoline Ford F250s you’ll see that they range in from 11 mpg up to 16 mpg, depending on the engine, transmission, towing capacity, etc. If you’re curious about how the Big Three compare, you can analyze that too (overall, GM edges out Ford and Fiat-Chrysler in gasoline pickups, and Ford bests the other two in diesel pickup efficiency on a sales-weighted basis – see chart below).

What else do we see when we analyze the agencies’ data?

Fuel economy for heavy-duty pickups will significantly increase with the new rules, but not nearly as much as for light-duty pickups. The figure below shows the baseline 2014 data for heavy-duty gasoline and diesel pickups, and their projected increase in fuel economy to comply with the proposed 2027 rules. The figure also shows the comparable data for large body-on-frame pickups that are regulated as light-duty vehicles, to provide additional context. As shown, heavy-duty gasoline pickups increase from 14 mpg to 19 mpg, and heavy-duty diesels from 17 mpg to 21 mpg on the regulated test cycle. Note that we also showed (on the right-hand-side vertical axis) the approximate fuel economy as seen by consumers, assuming vehicles get 20% lower fuel economy in the real world.

With these new proposed standards, the heavy-duty pickups in 2027 will not meet the fuel economy of today’s large light-duty pickups, which is 24 mpg on the test cycle. Note that, although these light- and heavy-duty fuel economy values are shown together for context, they have different testing protocols. The light-duty vehicles are tested with an additional 300 lb above the empty weight, as compared to 1,000 to 2,000 typically for the heavy-duty pickups.


Model year 2014 and regulatory 2027/2025 fuel economy of pickup trucks: heavy-duty gasoline, heavy-duty diesel, and light-duty gasoline.

Due to the testing procedures differences, an even better measure of the fuel economy stringency of the proposed 2027 heavy-duty pickup standards relative to the adopted 2025 large light-duty pickup standards is the required percent improvement from 2014. Those fuel economy percent improvements are shown in the table below. Note that the ranges are shown because the precise fuel economy standards differ according to the trucks’ work factor (a function of their payload, four-wheel drive, towing attributes) for heavy-duty and by vehicle footprint for the separate light-duty standards. The percent-per-year improvement, also compared in the table, is an additional way to analyze the new standards’ stringency, along with how fast the rules are being phased in.

Pickup category Fuel economy increase Average percent per year CO2 and fuel consumption reduction for new vehicles
Heavy-duty gasoline 29%–34% (2014–2027) 2.2%/year (2014–2027)
Heavy-duty diesel 20%–27% (2014–2027) 1.6%/year (2014–2027)
Large light-duty 35%–38% (2014–2025) 2.7%/year (2014–2025)

To sum this up: the standards for large light-duty pickups, which the automakers agreed to, require a much greater increase in fuel economy and do so two years faster than the standards for the heavy-duty pickups made by those same automakers. As a side note, when the agencies indicate the rules are reducing fuel consumption of pickups and vans by 2.5%/year, this neglects two facts: (1) the 2014 fleet is already beating the adopted regulations, and (2) there is a 2018–2020 period during which there is regulatory stability, with no movement in the standards. As a result the two numbers in the table—2.2%/year for gasoline, 1.6%/year for diesel—are considerably lower than reported by the agencies.

Manufacturers can deploy much of the same advanced efficiency technology they’re using in light-duty pickups in the heavy-duty space. A deeper dive into the agencies’ analysis indicates what is driving this result. The agencies include substantially lower penetration of efficiency technology in their heavy-duty analysis. However, the same technologies are applicable for light- and heavy-duty pickups and vans. For example, cylinder deactivation, downsized turbocharged engines, advanced transmissions, low-rolling resistance tires, lightweighting each have significantly lower technology penetration and lower efficiency effectiveness in the Phase 2 rulemaking, as compared to the agencies’ light-duty rule.

Reports from multiple sources suggest that leading companies are indeed increasingly planning to deploy their light-duty full-size pickup and van technology on their similar heavy-duty pickups and vans.

For a deeper analysis of all this see our report from back in April, which suggests the agencies would have to develop a more stringent rule and advance the timing several years to be as technology-forcing as the light-duty regulations for pickups and vans and promote all these hot new technologies.

There’s no mistaking that the regulations will do a lot for heavy-duty pickups and vans. However, it is safe to say that the proposed rules do not embrace the full technology potential that is available.