A Looming Fuel-Guzzling Problem for Detroit's Profitable Pickups

2015 Ford F-150 Courtesy Ford

The auto industry is slowly but surely squeezing out more collective miles per gallon, thanks to a proliferation of high-tech engines, turbo units, and more finely tuned transmissions.

All told, the average efficiency of U.S. vehicles ticked up to 24 mpg last year, according to a report (PDF) released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. Not shabby, sure, but each carmaker is supposed to get its entire fleet average above 54.5 mpg by 2025. The auto industry has a ways to go—particularly the Big Three in Detroit (and Italy). Here’s how things stack up now:

Of course, it’s no mystery why Ford, General Motors , and Chrysler are at the back of the pack. They are building—and selling—a steel tide of pickups. Mazda, Volkswagen, and Subaru, meanwhile, don’t sell anything with a flatbed. The foreign manufacturers stick instead to SUVs, many of which sip fuel these days. Here’s a look at the lineup of companies above based on what percent of the vehicles they stamp out are pickups:

This is why Chrysler is slapping together tiny Jeeps on Fiat frames. It’s also why Ford and Land Rover are going all-in on aluminum trucks.

This week’s EPA report also shows that blue chip performance brands aren’t helping anybody make progress on the efficiency front. Luxury these days still means a sports car driven by a massive power plant or a big sedan packed with lots of heavy safety features and technology. None of those attributes lends itself to efficiency:

This is the graph that all the Tesla proselytizers should send their friends. Elon Musk’s sedan, with an 89-mpg rating, is missing from the roster only because it didn’t crank out the 40,000 vehicles required to get on the EPA’s list.

That last graph also helps explain Cadillac’s weird new ELR hybrid coupe and why BMW threw a bunch of money at its i8 carbon-fiber spaceship. Mercedes, meanwhile, is notorious for blowing right by mileage limits.

To be sure, Ford’s new aluminum F-150s will help it make progress on its fleetwide mileage, and all of the 2024 pickups will be a lot closer to the 54.5-mpg threshold than they are now. But barring some fuel-cell breakthrough, car companies are going to have to move the needle with product mix. GM, for instance, will have a lot more incentive to sell something like the Chevy Spark than a Silverado pickup. Production levels and prices will reflect that, and buying a low-mileage engine will likely cost a buyer more before they even fill it up the first time. Call it environmental economics.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.