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Trucks Dominate Detroit Show Amid Industry Changes

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media
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The Ram 1500 full-size pickup being introduced at the North American International Auto Show. (Photo by Bill Koenig)

DETROIT – This is supposed to be era of self-driving cars. But a vehicle of the 20th century, rather than 21st, dominates the North American International Auto Show. That would be the pickup truck.

General Motors Co. (Detroit) unveiled a redesigned Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup (eight versions). The company held its event Saturday night, before the media days began at the show.

Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) went next on Sunday, bringing back to the United States the Ranger mid-size pickup. Today, FCA US LLC (Auburn Hills, MI), brought out its redesigned Ram 1500, with three versions.

Pickups make the bulk of the profits GM, Ford and FCA US (which includes the former Chrysler) generate. The trucks represent the “here and now” for the automakers.

“Pickups are still popular,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

That’s reflected in the multiple versions of truck models. “It’s about customization” for customers, she said.

Still, that doesn’t mean the 21st century isn’t making an impact at the show.

Reducing Weight

Automakers, for example, still face regulatory pressure to improve fuel efficiency. One strategy is to make vehicles lighter.

Ford attacked the problem earlier this decade by bringing out aluminum versions of its F-150 and Super Duty trucks. The company estimated the move reduced the F-150’s weight by 700 lb (318 kg). Cutting weight helps make a vehicle more fuel efficient.

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One of the eight versions of the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado pickup.

The GM and FCA trucks that debuted at the show didn’t follow the aluminum strategy but the automakers noted they’ve come up with weight reductions.

GM says the new Silverado is 450 lb (204 kg) lighter than its predecessor. The company is using more high-strength steel. Such steel is stronger than traditional steel, meaning less of the material is needed. GM also is using composite materials for some parts.

FCA estimates the new Ram is 225 lb (102 kg) lighter than its predecessor model. The company cut weight out of the body and frame with high-strength steel. The truck’s upper control arms are made of carbon fiber.

CES Effect

A broader impact at the Detroit show is another event: CES in Las Vegas, where consumer electronics are showcased. Automakers increasingly use CES to tout their advances in self-driving vehicle technology. The 2018 edition of the Detroit show was pushed back a week because of CES.

“What you’re getting is CES is taking over automation and technology,” said Kevin Tynan, senior automotive analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. “CES has taken the forward look.”

Automakers use CES as a way to emphasize their technology, in effect to get some of the love for tech that investors have. The emphasis of the Detroit show now is on product design and models of today. The splash the pickups are making also comes as the US vehicle market tilts more to trucks than before. According to Autodata, trucks accounted for more than 62% of US light vehicle sales in 2017.

“Those are what are paying the bills today,” Tynan said.

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