How the New Top-Selling Ford Truck Will Help the Environment

A newfangled Ford F-150 may do more for the planet than some economy cars.

Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company

Ford's redesigned large pickup truck could play a significant role in the war on climate change. Yes, you read that right.

However, before you conclude that comment was bought and paid for by Big Oil and click away from this article, read this: Assuming that the Ford F-150 sells 700,000 units — roughly the same number as it has for the past several model years — and that it gets the 22 mpg overall that many analysts are predicting, it may lower America's gasoline consumption by more than 115 million gallons. That's more than a million tons of carbon dioxide that won't be released into the atmosphere in a single year and roughly one-tenth of a percent of the nation's annual fuel consumption. Owners of the new F-150 will collectively save a whopping $500 million in fuel costs yearly. That's an impressive set of figures for just one vehicle.

If you're a driver of a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius, you might not think much of a vehicle that projects to get about 22 mpg overall, or even that it could get some 4 mpg better than the previous model. But numbers can be deceiving. That 4 mpg increase is about a 20 percent more fuel efficient and saves about a gallon of gasoline per 100 miles. That's virtually the same savings as increasing a 33-mpg car to 50 mpg, or swapping out a Honda Civic EX for a Prius. Considering that the F-150 will likely sell three times the units as the Prius in the 2015 model year, the picture emerges of a vehicle that's carrying a heavy load in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But let's come down to Earth for a second, this is a still light-duty pickup truck, not a fuel-sipper by any means. Pickups are built to carry and tow large, heavy objects, and they need a lot of energy to perform these tasks. And while pickups are purpose-built vehicles used mostly in the construction, agricultural, and forestry industries, there is still a small, but shrinking, segment of consumers who use them as family vehicles.

“Is the F-150 a green vehicle? No,” says John Voelcker, Editor of Green Car Reports, an automotive news website. “But you can clearly state that it is greener. With rising fuel economy standards, every car is going to get greener in the coming years. What is important to note is that Ford took an audacious leap into producing a much lighter aluminum vehicle.”

Aluminum is only used in a handful of high-end cars, including the all-electric Tesla Model S. What it brings to the F-150 is a dramatic reduction of weight over steel — some 700 pounds —which is a very cost-effective way to reduce gasoline consumption. A fortunate side effect of the reduced weight is enhanced towing and cargo capabilities. The F-150 was further tweaked by the addition of a more efficient, turbocharged V6 engine instead of a thirstier V8, a start-stop system that saves gasoline at idle, and grille vents and running boards that close at speed to reduce aerodynamic drag. So, while the F-150 is not a hybrid, Ford used most every other fuel-economy trick available to them.

Industry insiders are calling this the biggest gamble of Ford's 111-year history. The F-150 has been the top-selling vehicle in the United States for 32 years and it delivers the lion's share of Ford's profits. So there is much concern that a radical departure from a winning formula can alienate loyal customers. But Ford felt it was time for drastic changes to keep up with rising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards mandated by the U.S. Government. Clearly, these changes were driven by Ford's will to thrive under such regulations and not because of a corporate desire to become greener.

Still, Ford's aluminum diet won't end with the F-150. The automaker's heavy-duty trucks will follow soon, and eventually so will the automaker's large SUVs, the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator. The changeover to aluminum for these vehicles will further insure that Ford keeps pace with increasingly strict fuel economy standards.

The Bad Math of Fuel Economy

Comparing cars by miles per gallon (or mpg) can be deceptive to buyers. Among fuel-efficient cars, the savings for every mpg is quite small. However, among larger vehicles, which are typically less economical, a savings of even 2 mpg can be significant.

At today's fuel prices, a car that gets 32 mpg saves $85 over at car that gets 30 mpg, assuming that each are driven 12,000 miles a year. However, a car that gets 20 mpg saves $226.67 in gasoline costs compared to a car that gets 18 mpg. Both sets of cars are separated by just 2 mpg, but the car that gets 32 mpg is only 6.25 percent more efficient than its counterpart, while the car that gets 20 mpg is 10 percent more efficient than its rival. So, for both the consumer and the environment, it is perhaps more meaningful for the automakers to concentrate on making their so-called gas guzzlers more efficient than to eke out a little more mileage from their already economical cars.

Back in 2008, researchers at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business pointed out how deceptive measuring fuel economy in mpg could be. They recommended that consumer publications and car manufacturers list efficiency in terms of gallons per 10,000 miles driven, which would make it easy to see how much gas one might use in a given year of driving. With this alternative measurement, consumers could make better decisions about car purchases and environmental impact.

Using this rating, the difference in fuel economy between the 2014 and 2015 F-150 is more clear than just comparing 18 mpg versus 22 mpg. The old F-150 needs 555.5 gallons of gasoline to travel 10,000 miles while the 2015 redesign might only need 454.5. And when you have a fleet that grows by more than 700,000 vehicles annually, a 101 gallon difference between vehicles demonstrates the significant impact a seemingly small fuel-economy improvement can have on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Attacking the Green Monster

Despite the collective awe of automotive journalists, some green-car enthusiasts are not ready to buy into the notion that a tall, intimidating truck can also be a good global citizen, and they've taken to Internet message boards and social media to denounce the upcoming F-150. Large trucks and SUVs are the planet's enemies, they say, and those that write favorable articles about the F-150 are just “greenwashing,” or putting a lipstick on a pig of a vehicle.

Voelcker notes that the debate over the significance of the F-150 swamped the Green Car Reports message boards, providing the most comments they've published on any single topic in more than five years.

“People's definition of what kind of fuel economy constitutes a green car as an absolute varies enormously,” says Voelcker. “Some people don't believe that any vehicle that burns gas should be called green. And a lot of readers resented the idea that we were even writing about a pickup trucks on our site.”

But whether we like it or not, large pickup trucks are part of America's automotive fabric, and that is not going to change any time soon. And when automotive companies take steps to reduce the emissions of their most notorious gas gusslers, that's a big step in the right direction for the environment.