Light but heavy

Oct. 1, 2003
Like many North American families, I have a pickup truck to supplement my passenger car fleet. It doesn't see daily use, but it sure is handy for those frequent occasions when I need to haul something big and/or heavy. For the most part, pickups and tow trailers are used for recreational purposes. Contemporary OEM marketing gurus have targeted such personal use customers with their images of bigger,

Like many North American families, I have a pickup truck to supplement my passenger car fleet. It doesn't see daily use, but it sure is handy for those frequent occasions when I need to haul something big and/or heavy. For the most part, pickups and tow trailers are used for recreational purposes.

Contemporary OEM marketing gurus have targeted such “personal use” customers with their images of bigger, more powerful, and more macho light-truck models. Horsepower and torque ratings have become competitive bragging points. High-output diesel engines are fitted to a majority of the one-ton-and-larger models.

At the same time, advancements in aerodynamics, vibration and acoustics technology, computer assisted design, and new materials enable these performance characteristics to coexist with the kind of ride comfort and quiet found only in limousines not that long ago. In some respects, we “personal use” light-truck buyers may be having our cake and eating it too.

However, commercial customers are also using an increasing number of these same light truck platforms, or close derivatives. Utility services, parcel delivery, towing and wrecker services, ambulances, airport shuttles, and field maintenance vehicles are typical examples of the growing use of these offspring chassis fitted with specialized equipment. Many of the fleet managers who purchase these trucks also use larger commercial vehicles and are very familiar with the longevity, fuel economy, and maintenance advantages of diesel vs. gasoline power.

For many of the drivers, however, the truck is just one tool of their trade — their primary job function is something else entirely. So they're less likely to be expertly trained and conscientious about their driving habits than their Class 8 counterparts. Fuel economy and maintenance issues may not be priorities. Coupled with high output powertrains, this can result in light-truck fleets with high operational costs.

Tires with fast wear are usually the first components to receive attention, since torque application is closely related to rate of wear on drive axles. In this sense, tire life is similar to clutch and u-joint durability, because torque, rather than horsepower, is a primary influence. Efficient but firm-shifting automatics can sometimes compound this concern, since inexperienced or undisciplined drivers use the throttle as if it were a power on/off switch.

The commercial trucking industry has made major strides in increasing powertrain efficiency, including improved fuel economy, reduced maintenance requirements, greater durability and less downtime. All of which lowers vehicle cost-per-mile. Electronics plays a role in many of these advances — specifically fuel system controls and engine management systems tailored to the expected commercial duty cycles the truck will encounter.

It makes a good deal of sense to apply this technology to light- and medium-duty truck powertrains as well. While some manufacturers have indicated a willingness to do this, others are not yet convinced. The latter may be influenced by the fact that commercial users comprise a minority of their customer base, with most of the vehicles purchased by high margin personal-use customers.

Looking at it this way seems rather shortsighted to me. The commercial segment is growing, and commercial users have long memories. Hopefully, all light-duty commercial truck OEMs will respond to this segment of their business.

Ultimately, our economy and the global competitiveness of our goods and services will benefit.

About the Author

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