Brent Dewar, vp of field sales operations for General Motors, will tell you that the key components for current and future light- and medium-duty truck design can be boiled down to five ingredients: quality, safety and security, fuel economy, environmental impact, and product functionality.
“These are the fundamental areas we plan to address with our designs in the coming years,” he told FleetOwner at a recent GM ride and drive event in Nashville, TN. “These design components are what’s going to deliver both quality and value to consumer and commercial customers alike.”
For example, the need to improve vehicle safety is why GM is aiming to make its Stabilitrak vehicle stability system standard on most of its truck models by the end of the decade, along with its OnStar communication system. However, the process of integrating OnStar into a medium-duty truck’s more complicated electrical system may delay its introduction on those classes of vehicles for a while yet.
Why is safety such a critical design component? Dewar pointed to numbers cited by race car driver Andy Pilgrim, whose racing team receives sponsorship from GM. Pilgrim noted that automotive crashes in terms of fatalities, injuries, vehicle damage, medical insurance and lost time at work total $231 billion per year in the U.S., with $80 billion of that borne by employers. One vehicle crash can cost an employer $16,500, with the price rising to $76,000 if an employee is injured in a crash and $500,000 if they are killed. “That’s why improving safety is a challenge we must address,” said Dewar.
On another front, the need to improve fuel economy while lessening the environmental impact of trucks and improving the nation’s energy security are an example of how design issues are started to converge in unexpected ways. “Fuel cells are the end game in terms of future vehicle propulsion,” Dewar explained – referring to the use of hydrogen gas as a vehicle fuel since it’s abundant in the U.S. and produces only water and oxygen as byproducts of combustion. Yet fuel cells are still far from reality, he noted, so other technologies must come into play in the meantime to improve the fuel economy and environmental footprint of trucks.
One system is Active Fuel Management (AFM), which turns on and off engine cylinders depending on how much power is needed by the driver. This gives a V8 engine the fuel map of a smaller V4 once it’s cruising at highway speed. “We now offer AFM on our 5.3 liter V8 and plan to make it available on our V6 engine line soon,” said Dewar. “By 2008, we expect to have AFM on over two million vehicles we build.”
The current volatility of fuel prices also means searching for other viable sources of vehicle fuel must continue, he added. In GM’s case, a bet is being placed on E85 – a fuel comprised of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. “We’ve already built over 1.5 million ‘flexible fuel’ vehicles capable of running on either regular gasoline or E85 and plan to build 400,000 this year alone,” Dewar said. “Building E85-capable vehicles helps us address several issues: It helps in terms of energy security by keeping money spent on foreign oil in the U.S. and it helps reduce greenhouse gases, so it improves our environmental footprint.”
Finally, vehicle quality and product functionality can’t be ignored – especially for truck fleets, said Dewar. “Quality and functionality do a lot of things for a fleet: they boost residual value and lower operating costs for the customer,” he explained. “That’s why in 2007 we’ve offering 30 new engine and transmission upgrades so we can meet those fleet value propositions.
“Taken together, all of these goals represent challenges but you can’t become paralyzed by challenges,” Dewar continued. “You have to meet them head on.”