This must be the North American International Auto Show because I'm freezing my butt off and every auto manufacturer here is acting like a desperate, teenage girl trying to get attention. And as fun as it is to see all the pretty flashing lights, I'm once again struck by how few pickup trucks and SUVs are here. But I suppose that shouldn't surprise me given the last several years, just like the industry in general.
However, considering that just about every full-size pickup truck had a strong end-of-the-year sales spurt for 2010 (according to some J.D. Power & Associates info from the web), you'd think there'd be a little more love for this class of vehicle at the show. It's no secret there's quite a bit of pent-up demand in the light- and heavy-duty truck market, so maybe these numbers make sense. A lot of business owners and weekend warriors have delayed their new-truck purchases with the terrible economy and the price of fuel fluxuating. But now they seem to be buying. In fact, the Ford F-Series took the sales lead for 2010 in both half-ton and heavy-duty segments. However, our guess is GM's HDs will make a pretty strong push for next year's title with its new Silverado HD making big waves in the 2011 Motor Trend Truck of the Year. But don't count GM out in the half-ton arena either; it'll be showing its new 2012 Silverado and Sierra pretty soon, both of which should have big changes. Back on the heavy-duty side, it might surprise some to know the Ram HD sold more vehicles this year than did the Chevy Silverado HD, and the Super Duty sold more than Chevy HD, GMC HD, and Ram HD combined. Both the light- and heavy-duty truck markets bottomed out a while ago, with each of the three big truck makers (slowly) ramping up their marketing and product development push. Look for more special models coming from each.
The North American Truck of the Year was announced at the show as the first press conference of the day. Which wasn't a surprise; they've been doing that for several years. What was interesting was the three finalists were three SUVs, with the winner being the one most like a crossover, based on a car platform. Don't get me wrong; there's plenty to like about the new Ford Explorer (the 2011 NACOTY). But there was something odd about a truck category being won by a vehicle with a car platform. I suppose that speaks more to the limitations of the words we use and the traditional categories that may need some freshening up. Or, at least, some clarifying. If this doesn't scream that our industry is in dire need of redefining our terms more clearly, I don't know what does. If we're going to call a Ford Explorer (or a Ford Flex for that matter) a truck or an SUV (something the Ford marketing people are quite pleased about), than something has got to be wrong with our terms. We need to come up with better segment descriptors to more accurately define and distinguish what we're talking about. Less clarity typically means less knowledge.
In the bowels of Michigan Hall here at the NAIAS, a place typically relegated to the smaller, "less important" exhibitors, an unassuming 2010 F-150 sports four wheel-hub-mounted electric motors. It caught my eye during the announcement of the NACOTY and NATOTY awards ceremony because the big truck was doing laps on a small demonstration course right behind the stage area -- and wasn't making any noise. The company is named Protean Electric, and (no surprise here) it's looking for interested parties for its technology. They're not the first company to make electric motors for wheel hubs, but they are the first to put a prototype together on a full-size pickup truck. The system is said to give 110 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque at each wheel, with no loss of payload capacity or towing ability. In fact, the system software is so smart it even prevented the wheels from "chirping" the tires on the polished concrete of the convention center floor. But one of the coolest aspects of the conversion is that the entire engine compartment can be used as a lockable trunk. Of course, the company was vague on pricing, but did mention it expects to be on a working preproduction vehicle for one of the German manufacturers within 18 months.
Unfortunately, that means no pickup (at least one for sale in the U.S.), but it would still be pretty cool on an SUV or crossover. We'll see.