GM, Ford Scrambling to Meet Tougher 2016 CAFE Standards

Tougher U.S. fuel efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2016, are forcing automakers like General Motors Company and Ford Motor Company to come up with creative ways to trim hundreds of pounds from their pickup trucks without sacrificing performance and towing capacity.

With the deadline looming closer, automakers are left with a single design cycle in which to design and test lighter-weight components made of more costly materials like aluminum, magnesium and steel alloys.

The higher cost of manufacturing more fuel efficient light trucks will ultimately be passed along to consumers. Ducker Worldwide consultant Dick Shultz said, “There is a lot of hand-wringing in the industry right now. You can’t afford to be on the wrong side of this thing.”

The federal government’s new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard will require automakers to reach a fleet-wide average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The new standard for light trucks, which accounted for about 50 percent of total U.S. sales through November, will be around 30 miles per gallon.

CAFE standard for 2010 is 29.2 miles per gallon. For light trucks, the figure is considerably lower, at 24.9 miles per gallon.

Automakers have launched a number of new hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars to help them meet the current CAFE standard, and new models are in the works to help them keep pace once the tougher standard goes into effect in 2016. Improving the fuel efficiency of their light trucks will be a much trickier and more expensive proposition for automakers.

Light trucks weigh around 5,000 pounds on average, up 22 percent over the past ten years, while the average fuel economy of pickup trucks has only increased two percent.

To comply with the tougher fuel economy standard, General Motors plans to launch a revamped version of its popular Chevrolet Silverado pickup for model year 2014. The company’s head of full-size truck development Rick Spina said, “We’re going to do everything we can to keep the customer from realizing we’ve had to make changes in a fundamental way.”

He said the company plans to reduce the weight of its light trucks by an average of 500 pounds in order to meet the 2016 mandates. In order to comply with the next round of mandates scheduled for 2025, the automaker may be forced to cut an additional 500 pounds per truck. Some have speculated that the 2025 CAFÉ standard could go as high as 62 miles per gallon.

Spina said the use of blown-in foam insulation to reduce road noise may become more commonplace as automakers look for innovative ways to reduce the weight of their vehicles. Blown-in insulation is more expensive but also lighter than the materials currently used by automakers.

According to two people familiar with the matter, Ford Motor Company is exploring the possibility of using a magnesium alloy frame and aluminum body panels on its next-generation F-150 pick-up truck. One of the individuals said such measures could potentially reduce the truck’s weight by around 800 pounds.

Ford Motor Company has declined to comment on its future product plans for the F-150, which is currently the best-selling light truck in the U.S. Spina said that GM is looking into ways to use magnesium and aluminum in the frames of future GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado models. The GMC Sierra is currently the second best-selling in the U.S.

HIS Automotive director of global powertrain forecasting Eric Fedewa expects the changes in design and materials combined with higher sticker prices will lead to dwindling sales of light trucks in the coming years. Fedewa said, “With fuel economy standards where they are, trucks are going to get kind of edged out of the top of the market. Everything is going to change in the next vehicle cycles.”

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