It doesn’t take a genius to see that pickup truck sales and fuel economy standards are on a collision course. Starting back in 2011, Ford and Toyota decided to put their heads together to plan for the hybrid pickup trucks of the future. After all, Toyota is a world leader in hybrid technology, having practically invented the hybrid car segment of the market with its innovative Prius. Who better for Ford to work with?
Building a hybrid pickup truck is not as simple as shoving the Synergy Drive powertrain from a Prius under the hood of an F150. For one thing, the F150 weighs twice as much as a Prius. For another, it is expected to haul things once in a while or tow a trailer on occasion. Plus, the Prius is front wheel drive. Try telling some rancher in Texas that he has to buy a front wheel drive pickup and you might wind up with a mouthful of loose teeth.
Earlier this year, Ford terminated its working relationship with Toyota, leaving anger and hurt feelings in the wake of its decision. Speaking to reporters at the Tokyo motor show in October, Koei Saga, senior managing officer in charge of Toyota’s powertrain division, said the project progressed quite far and that Toyota was stunned when Ford decided to pull the plug. He feels Ford simply used the talks to tap Toyota’s hybrid expertise.
“Because we proposed everything,” Saga said. “Well, I don’t know whether they stole, but we proposed all the technologies we had. It even went as far as the drawings. Technologically, we went far, and the engineers of both companies agreed that that technology was good enough to do it,” Saga said. “But ultimately, the Ford management made a decision, and it fell apart. I really regret it, and I’m very sorry.” When Ford ended the relationship, it made sure it kept all those lovely drawings and technical information, Saga says ruefully.
It’s a classic “he said, she said” situation and Ford- despite its long history with intellectual property disputes– tells the story rather differently, claiming things just didn’t work out. Its spokesman, Said Deep, tells Automotive News that Ford’s decision was simply based on the outcome of an internal feasibility study. Ford decided its own technology is better suited for a rear wheel drive hybrid system in pickups and SUVs. “We remain on plan to bring our new hybrid system to market by the end of this decade,” Deep said, adding that the system will deliver truck and SUV capability with far greater fuel economy. Ford already has 150 patents related to its system and another 230 pending, acccording to Deep.
“This (the hybrid pickup truck segment) is a very competitive segment, and if one OEM receives a boost in sales with such an offering, the rest will surely soon follow,” said Devin Lindsay, principal analyst at IHS Automotive. He said hybrid pickups could arrive as soon as 2017. Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com agrees, but addis, “It is hard to imagine that the traditional base will be drawn to the hybrid technology unless the increase in efficiency comes at little additional cost and without sacrificing capability.”
The regulations will force the issue, however. There is no way under heaven that traditional pickups are going to meet the 2025 fuel economy standards without drastic alterations in their motive power. The problem for manufacturers is that pickups and large SUVs are extremely profitable and the companies are selling every one they can weld, bolt and glue together. But because they sell so many of them, they have a disproportionate impact on corporate average fuel economy.
Americans love their enormous trucks almost as much as they love their mothers. When fuel costs spike and crunch time comes (again!) in a few years with a hybrid being the only choice, customers may prefer to cast their lot with Toyota, which has a well known reputation for building reliable hybrids, rather than with Ford, which does not. What goes around, comes around, they say. Ford may yet have reason to regret the rough treatment it gave Toyota.
Image credit: Automotive News.