Why More Automakers Must Focus on Commercial Vehicles’ Mileage Rates

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Ford has dominated the truck market going on four decades.

Would you have traveled to Detroit this week just to see a bunch of trucks? After all, the North America International Auto Show is an avalanche of automobile eye candy, mostly sports cars like the 2014 Corvette Stingray and sleek sedans. I spent most of my free time snapping pictures of every red car on the floor of the COBO Center. Of course for all the glitz and show, for those seriously vested in the automobile business, there was much to learn about the 2013 models. And while design and new technologies left most visitors smitten, there was some attention paid to sustainability. Just about every automaker in Detroit devoted some focus on the improved fuel mileage of their cars–including Ford Motor Co.’s announcement yesterday that the new Ford Fusion Energi plug-in will score a range of up  to 620 miles.

But with all the focus on the latest in sedans, sports cars, SUVs and of course electric vehicles such as the new Tesla, commercial vehicles are an important slice of the pie for many automakers. We may complain about that truck on the highway or kvetch about the van temporarily blocking a lane to make a delivery, but the fact is that vans, pickup trucks and light to heavy trucks are the lifeblood of many small business and of course, the economy. And while the public’s buying habits are changing because of the cost of fuel, larger vehicles have long dominated the automotive market. Ford, which has led in commercial vehicle sales for over three decades, is making some progress on this front.

Commercial vehicles are crucial for Ford Motor Co’s success. As the company’s executives reminded us this week at its NAIAS press conference, vans, buses and pick-ups are one-third of the company’s sales in the U.S. and 29 percent globally. Almost half of the commercial trucks on the roads in the U.S. are Fords. And around the world, Ford trucks are a mainstay, such as the Transit, which in the UK has been one of the most popular trucks for decades. These trucks, whether they are built by Ford or its competitors, are used, abused and are central to small businesses around the world. So of course performance and reliability matter; but as fossil fuel prices ride, fuel efficiency will matter even more. A slight nudge in gas mileage can save a local business hundreds, even thousands, of dollars as they lug goods and people across cities and rural areas–hardly small change for businesses operating on thin margins.

Ford says it is paying more attention to fuel efficiency within its commercial fleet. For example, its 2014 Transit Connect Wagon can tow up to 2,000 additional pounds with a fuel economy of 30 MPG on the highway–which Ford estimates can save as much as $2000 in fuel annually. Meanwhile the 2013 Ford F-150 truck with a 3.5 liter EcoBoost engine edges out its competitors on the fuel mileage scale. And if the Ford Atlas concept truck rolls out as planned, the company will have an even more efficient option for businesses seeking to save money as the price of gasoline rises.

So will hybrid trucks become the norm? One Ford representative explained to me when Ford has hosted events in various cities, customers who own trucks because they have to for their businesses are clamoring for them as a way to cut cost. VIA rolled out electrified vans and trucks at NAIAS this week, and the Chevy 2013 Silverado Hybrid offers 23 MPG on the highway and 367 lb-ft of torque. There is still plenty of room for improvement, however. As diesel and gasoline prices rise in the coming decade, look for Ford and other companies to roll out new models of trucks and vans with even better mileage.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will explore children’s health issues in India next month with the International Reporting Project.

Disclosure: Ford paid for Leon Kaye’s attendance at NAIAS.

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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