Buy New? Pickup Owners Say No
ATLANTA - The other day, Dareem Rashid was selling Carolina-style ribs on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta. That's just one of many locations where he sets up shop. To get his business from place to place, he uses a 1995 Chevy Silverado, pulling his two-pit barbecue kit behind.
Given that his truck is 14 years old, how would he feel about buying a new pickup - one that costs more but gets better mileage under tough new fuel-economy standards?
"I wouldn't buy one of those new trucks for nothing," he says.
Such is the challenge facing the auto industry.
Under the fuel-efficiency standards that President Obama announced in May, automakers must achieve a 30- miles-per-gallon average for pickups by 2016 - 10 more mpg than the previous standards, an increase of 50 percent.
Pickup trucks, in fact, are where manufacturers would have to make the greatest strides in fuel economy.
In other words, truck efficiency will not come easily, and it may affect everything from vehicle weight to torque. And the sticker price? The increase per pickup could go well beyond $1,300, which is the average estimated hike for a new car or truck.
This is a price that many of America's 41 million pickup owners - those hammer swingers, pipe twisters, carpet haulers, and fix-it guys - may not be willing to pay.
For truck drivers with opinions similar to Rashid's, two options are emerging if their wheels falter. One is to trade down to a sedan, wagon, or smaller truck.
Another, say truck owners and transportation researchers, is to fix existing vehicles - in much the same way that some Cubans still take wrenches to Rat Pack-era American cars.
"Call it the Cuban effect," says Bill Hammond, a rancher in Lockhart, Texas. "For the average rancher or farmer, the pickup is their office, their workhorse, and mode of transportation, and now they may have to keep the one they've got for a heck of a long time."
Historically, trucks have been a chief profit center for the auto industry. But pickup sales have begun what many believe is a permanent decline - from 13 percent of total auto sales to 11 percent.
It won't help that some truck owners aren't very enthusiastic about the pickups of the future. These drivers have a unique attachment to their vehicles, whether they're hauling feed across the Texas plains or shuttling 60 miles a day across the hills of Atlanta to tie electrical wires.
"The average truck guy is some stubborn carpenter or farmer, and you don't want to tell these people what to do," says David Booth, an automotive columnist at The National Post in Don Mills, Ontario.
A massive balk by truck owners could have all sorts of repercussions. One possibility: If the average truck turnover went from five to 12 years, as some estimate, that would put a damper on the White House's goal of saving 1.8 billion barrels of oil in the next five years.
However, it's unknown how the new federal "Cash for Clunkers" program will effect new truck sales. Under the program - which begins July 1 - up to 1 million Americans, including truck owners, will be eligible to get up to $4,500 for trading in their gas-guzzlers for a more efficient ride. The $4 billion price tag will come out of the federal TARP funds.
"The problem is that the longer you keep those vehicles, the worse the emission and fuel economy of the fleet become," says Bruce Belzowski at the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Still, one possibility going forward is that people who want to buy big, not-so-fuel-efficient trucks will actually be able to do so with ease.
That's thanks to a loophole of sorts: Although automakers have to meet a fleet average of 30 mpg for pickup trucks, this could be achieved by creating super-efficient smaller trucks - while essentially leaving bigger trucks the way they are.
For better or worse, the new wave of trucks can already be glimpsed on the road. The 2009 Chevrolet Silverado hybrid gets 25 percent better gas mileage than its predecessor - but its towing capacity is cut nearly in half and the truck "lacks giddyup," according to Engineering News-Record (ENR), a trade publication. The vehicle comes at a $6,000 premium, even after a government tax break. Those who use trucks for work "will have some serious soul-searching to do," according to an ENR review.
Yet environmentalists say the new standards will ultimately benefit blue-collar haulers. "Even at 30 percent improvement, the vast majority of changes are going to be under the hood and not visible to the average consumer," says Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign in Washington. "My hope is that truck buyers look at this as an opportunity to get something they've never been able to get before: a more efficient truck."
Yet perhaps much of this discussion misses a larger point, some critics say. The real problem, they say, is a lack of political fortitude to standardize higher fuel costs through raising the fuel tax.
"We need certainty around gas prices," says Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com, an auto information provider. "The fact is that the payback period for fuel-efficient trucks gets reasonable at $5 a gallon, but at $2 a gallon, you could be looking at a 10-year payback."
Given such estimates, there's already skepticism about the new fuel-economy standards holding up. Washington may ultimately extend the 2016 deadline, some say.
"Stay tuned," writes David Cole, chairman for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., in an e-mail. "I do believe we will see an entire new business with the updating of older trucks per the Cuba model. But I'm not convinced the standards will be implemented as written if fuel prices are relatively low."
The outcome will primarily ride on decisions made in the next few years by Americans who haul stuff - guys like Gill Sheats. The odometer on the Atlanta electrician's well-worn 1973 Chevy has already turned over twice.
"I can keep this thing running forever," he says. "Motor goes out, I drop another one in."