It's absolutely nothing new for, say, writers and filmmakers: trying to predict the future. But auto and truck manufacturers and related suppliers are scrambling to do it, too — designing as much for tomorrow as for today, each hoping their crystal ball is clearest as they tailor products for a technology-saturated future.
Everyone's looking for disruption insurance. And in various ways, trucks and vans in the light vehicle categories, Classes 1-3, are playing a big role in these efforts, sometimes advancing them and sometimes holding them back.
One future mobility element that's gaining momentum is a changeover in propulsion away from gasoline- and diesel-burning internal combustion engines, or ICEs. It seems logical; oil is a finite global resource thought to be more than half spent already, and entire nations have been moving to cut off future diesel and gasoline engines at some point.
It's got just about every auto and commercial truck manufacturer out there advancing — or at least keeping an eye on — electric vehicles, whether it's hybrid electric, battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But you can build all the electric vehicles you want and not make a lick of difference if nobody buys them.
Such is the case in the United States, where several years of low fuel prices and a surging appetite for pickup trucks and SUVs are potentially putting the brakes on the future of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.
Witness the conundrum now facing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it decides whether to scale back the upcoming more stringent light vehicle greenhouse gas and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements.
It's clear the Trump administration has a mind to curb federal regulation generally and ease up on the reins a bit for businesses. Things like Obama-era CAFE and greenhouse gas standards respectively set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and EPA that essentially double fleet-wide light vehicle average mpg by 2025 seem to fit the bill, even though the regulations were set back in 2012.
As they stand, the light vehicle emission requirements, if achieved by boosting fuel economy, would mean an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg across model year 2025 U.S. light vehicles. When President Obama had a week left in office, EPA and NHTSA determined that the requirements for 2022-2025 passenger cars and trucks were appropriate as-is.
EPA is now revisiting that midterm evaluation and has gathered some new input. In a comment period that ended Oct. 5, groups representing environmental advocates, utilities and alternative fuel companies, health care professionals, churches and others urged that no changes be made to EPA's and NHTSA's decision to leave the regulations alone.
But automakers pointed to real-world vehicle sales, where trucks and SUVs are on an increasing trajectory while sedans and smaller vehicles are losing ground. The argument is that's making it tougher or infeasible to reach 2022-2025 emissions goals.
"Adjustments to the regulations are needed to allow automakers to build vehicles that consumers want and can afford, encourage innovation and continue on the path of annual fuel economy improvements and GHG emissions reductions," read comments from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Even if electric powertrains for U.S. vehicles face an uncertain road ahead, electronics in vehicles sure don't. Another destination looming large for the future of transportation is self-driving vehicles, and in the interim before they perhaps deliver themselves to dealer lots, connectivity and advanced electronic technologies are spreading fast.
Concerning the latter, that goes for everything from electronically-actuated parking brakes to collision mitigation features and adaptive cruise control. Together, think of these technologies as a connect-the-dots worksheet that one day will end up a picture of the autonomous vehicle.
Take Nissan, for instance, which said it's making autonomous emergency braking standard on what it projects will be a million 2018 vehicles sold in the U.S. (although notably, that doesn't include vehicles with manual transmissions, a glaring holdout of human input that's quickly becoming an endangered species here). Automatically applied braking systems use radar, video and other detection systems and can trigger a full stop to avoid hitting pedestrians, vehicles and other obstacles if the driver fails to.
The automaker said it sees the ultimate goal of future transportation as "zero emissions and zero fatalities" and made a very robot-like reference to its 2018 products: "Nissan is making cars exciting partners for our customers."
Very telling, though, are efforts taking place at Ford Motor Co. and no doubt being mirrored elsewhere. In an update with investors early this month, the company said it plans to reduce spending on internal combustion engines by a third and will divert those funds into electric propulsion. By 2019, the automaker promised to have all its new U.S. vehicles feature built-in connectivity.
The following year, Ford is targeting 90% of its new vehicles globally to be built with connectivity. Looking to design "smart vehicles for a smart world," the company is testing self-driving vehicles along with a number of other OEMs, and views connectivity and advanced vehicle systems as building blocks that will make autonomous vehicles a reality.
In the meantime, Ford is trying to figure out how to monetize additional features and services for drivers and passengers in future self-driving vehicles, and that's where vans in particular seem to fit the bill.
"The key is the business model and the service layer that sits on top of the tech," noted James Farley Jr., executive vice president and president of global markets at Ford. "For us, we're looking to develop a very diverse revenue model — not just ride-hailing, but also moving goods and even serving content.
"That's really important," he continued, "because the profitability in [autonomous vehicles] is all about high utilization, and the best model to do that is to have a diverse group of businesses and services to utilize the vehicle all day long."
Further, Farley pointed out that small passenger cars probably won't fit this model well. So what would?
Something like a Transit van might. Ford already acquired and is expanding its Chariot shuttle ride-sharing service operated with Transit vans; commuters in cities like Seattle or New York who have limited or expensive access to public transit sign up to request shuttle routes, and routes are added when enough people ask for them.
"We are using our Transit commercial van product," said Marcy Klevorn, executive vice president and president of mobility at Ford. "We reconfigured the product to make it amenable to those doing ride-sharing. We then used our software to create great tools for the driver, a great experience for the riders — digital display, apps — and then finally, to create services to operate the Chariot suites, which end up saving about $9,000 per vehicle," she continued.
"So [it's a] great experience, but also cost-effective in the way we're managing our products."
Aside from Chariot ride-sharing, Ford launched Non-Emergency Medical Transport, which does just what it sounds like: Transit vans pick up sick and elderly patients to transport them to medical appointments, possibly incorporating wheelchairs and stretchers.
"Transit products can be configured to accommodate these needs along with software around them for scheduling appointments, billing, etc.," Klevorn said. "We've been in business now for about eight weeks . . . and every week, we grow in revenue and rides."
Thus light trucks and vans — in sometimes unnoticed ways — are helping shape future mobility and corresponding products and services. And it only makes sense as more of these vehicles are serving business or personal uses and lend themselves easily to future ride-sharing or pickup-and-delivery-type operations.
What else will they be able to do when the vehicles themselves take over the driving?