Making Hybrid Pickups Work for America

The idea of hybrid pickup trucks may offend some macho drivers, but Toyota and Ford are bringing them closer to reality.

I had borrowed my mom’s Prius to drive to a music festival in upstate New York. But when I tried to leave, the car was stuck in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere. A few of the young men who working as attendants at the makeshift festival parking lot pushed the front of the car while I floored the engine in a futile attempt to dislodge it.

At low speeds the Prius runs on electric power, so there was no roaring, revved engine to prove I was giving it my all. And as I learned later, the car couldn’t work as hard in this situation as a gas-only vehicles: If the tires were spinning too fast when they caught on the slippery surface, the resulting force could damage the Prius’ precious electric engine.

A minute or two later, the young men gave up on me and my wimpy car. They hooked up the Prius to their red-blooded Ford pickup and towed me out.

For as long as there have been hybrids, this has been the dynamic. Weenie greenies drive hybrids. People who drive trucks rescue the hybrid drivers when their cars can’t get the job done. But five years from now, the pickup pulling a Prius out of the mud could be a hybrid itself.

Over the summer, the Obama administration cut a deal with the auto industry to improve fuel efficiency in the country’s fleet of vehicles. Pickup trucks and SUVs don’t have to improve as quickly as cars do, but by 2025, they can no longer be the gas-guzzlers they are today. Car companies could make trucks more efficient without putting in hybrid engines, but the Obama administration built a deal-sweetener into the fuel efficiency standards for any company that starts producing hybrid trucks.

Car companies aren’t ignoring those incentives. Yesterday, Ford and Toyota announced that they’d be working together on building an engine system for hybrid trucks. The deal makes sense for both companies: Toyota has led the industry in hybrid technology, and Ford’s F-series pickups sell better than any other car in America. The two companies will design their own trucks, but the underlying technology will be the same. By cooperating, they’ll be able to put hybrid trucks on the market more quickly and at lower prices.

Options for hybrid pickups right now are slim. GMC has been selling hybrid versions of the Chevy Silverado and the GMC Sierra since 2003, but customers have complained about the price points. Toyota developed a concept vehicle called the Advanced Breakthrough Aero Truck, but the company never produced the A-BAT commercially. One look explains why. The A-BAT saves gas using the same aerodynamic principles as the Prius, and its futuristic design raises questions about what self-respecting macho man would drive it.

But serious pickup drivers are beginning to rethink what kind of vehicle they’re willing to consider. Ford pickups equipped with the company’s turbo-charged V6 EcoBoost engine are outselling the more muscly V8 models. Here’s hoping eco-friendly trucks will still be able to pull us Prius drivers out of the mud when called upon.

Photo (cc) via flickr user David Reber

Julian Meehan

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