Trucks and SUVs are built to serve a specific need, and in spite of the "teaser" graphic above will never challenge a Prius for top fuel economy numbers. On the flip side, a Prius will never pull a 14,000 pound trailer. In completing this trip, I plan to demonstrate that even these older "basket case" vehicles respond readily to simple maintenance and changes in driving behavior. For our environment, these improvements in fuel economy and reductions in emissions are imperative.
Like most of you I've had a lifelong interest in protecting the environment, but I didn't buy a truck because I wanted to do this project. Unlike building trades contractors that have a constant need for what a working truck offers, I just think owning a truck is fun and occasionally useful.
I'm clearly not alone in this, as new truck sales have been rising and now account for over one-half of all light vehicle sales. It was only after learning about the condition of many used trucks and their impact on the environment that I became interested in finding ways to boost the fuel economy of my own truck so as to see what might be possible for these vehicles as a group. Disclaimer: While I'm very glad for what I've been able to accomplish with this truck, please evaluate the project from the standpoint of helping current owners of these vehicles. I'm absolutely not recommending that people run out and buy old trucks to solve their transportation needs!
We'll all benefit from the new 2011 model year standards for trucks and SUVs, but there are over 100,000,000 now on the road with an average age of almost 10 years. Trucks just like my 16 year old project vehicle are on the road every day, and millions of trucks remain active for decades. I'll get back to my own truck story, but first, some bullet points ...
The Problem Scope
- Trucks and SUVs account for more than one-third of the North American fleet (cars and light duty trucks).
- Trucks are driven farther annually, on average, than cars.
- Trucks get poor fuel economy compared to cars.
- Emissions tampering is rampant in older trucks -- almost three times the rate for cars.
- Trucks with tampered / failed emissions can generate a 20 fold increase in emissions.
- Engine sensor failure is common in older vehicles, leading to higher fuel consumption and emissions.
The Big Picture
- Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of our energy consumption.
- Feeding our dependency on foreign oil, we export over a billion dollars daily to hostile foreign governments.
- Hunger for imported oil clouds our foreign policy / decision making about foreign conflicts.
- Trucks and SUVs generate hundreds of millions of metric tons of Greenhouse Gasses (GHGs) each year.
- Going forward, the impacts of GHGs on climate change will be enormous.
Owner Education: The 1st Hurdle
- For 20+ years manufacturers have relied on emissions systems to increase power and fuel economy.
- Misguided owners often tamper with these controls, and truck owners are the worst offenders.
- Owners also fail to maintain emissions systems, resulting in higher emissions, lower economy and poor performance.
- Owners make cosmetic modifications (tires / lift kits) without understanding implications for fuel economy.
- Driving More Efficiently makes the largest single difference.
- Another easy win? Simple Maintenance
History & Lessons of the Red Sled
If you want to purchase an old truck cheaply, Craigslist is a prime destination. Most of those listed are garbage, but with automotive mechanic training and employment in my distant past, I forged ahead with trepidation. Unlike many, I knew exactly what I wanted: A particular year model with features I had identified as important. The ninth generation Ford F-150 was the last to offer the big "Strait Six", a 4.9L, 300 cubic inch displacement (CID) inline six (I6) of legendary reliability. Ford produced over 7,000,000 of these powerplants, the last of them including technological advances that made this the specific choice for me:
I looked at a parade of high-mileage (140,000-200,000) "must see" rust bucket disasters, all advertised as "runs great". I was overjoyed to find a truck with just 83,375 miles and very little rust, with the I6 and a stick-shift. I knew it had some problems, but far fewer than the average I'd seen, and at $2,000 it seemed like a comparative bargain.
- 1st year OBD-II engine / emissions control available (more later).
- 1st year Mass Air Flow (MAF) metering available.
- 1st year of Sequential Fuel Injection (vs multiport).
- Last year of inline-six cylinder engine production.
- Last year of the aesthetically pleasing 9th Generation styling (with I6).
The first trials involving my truck had to do with leaks. Fuel tanks leaked gasoline. The valve cover gasket leaked oil. Then there were brake fluid leaks. Shot axle bearings / seals, leaked gear oil. Exhaust systems and manifolds leaking unprocessed combustion gasses. Radiator and hoses leaking coolant. In the end I spent more to stop the leaking than I did to purchase the vehicle, but I decided that I had to treat it as though I were picking up after my dogs.
It's a Tossup ...
After addressing the deferred maintenance, I came to ask myself whether buying an old truck was ever a good idea. Could it ever represent a "bargain"? I can tell you now that it very much depends on:
- Whether you're picky about what you drive.
- The value of your time.
- How much time you have to invest in truck shopping.
- Whether you plan to fix what's wrong.
- The quality of repair you'll be needing.
- Whether you plan to do the repairs yourself or hire the work done.
If you wanted to find a meticulously maintained truck of a specific year, make and model, I'm certain you'd have to arrange well over 100 meetings with sellers, conducting inspections, test drives and negotiating price before having any chance of finding a cheap old truck that didn't need plenty of work done. If your time is worth anything and you don't want to invest hundreds of hours looking, then you probably are going to end up with something that needs plenty of work and then applying the fixes.
If you're not that particular about the details of your truck and you have the means, then you can probably buy whatever new truck is on sale and do fine. For many buyers, however, obsessing over the details as you "trick your truck" is half the fun. When you order a new truck or SUV, you get the parts the automaker picked for you, and you're generally stuck ordering complete accessory "packages" to get the one or two features you really want. Modifying a new truck gets expensive very quickly as you replace brand new stock parts with your own preferences. With a used truck, replacing worn out parts with exactly what you want is expensive but it's also very satisfying.
Me? I researched specific brands of new tires and alloy wheels and replaced the old bald tires and the rusted steel wheels on my first day of ownership. The wheels give the truck a very distinctive look -- my look. A lot of people care about that sort of thing, and when you buy a new vehicle the few alternate wheel offerings are very expensive.
Similarly, replacing the leaking exhaust and tampered catalytic converter meant I got the specific low restriction catalytic converter and specific muffler sound I wanted. The old starter never died, but the new high-torque model spins the engine to life faster every time it cranks. When the axle shaft seals were replaced, and stuff was all pulled apart anyway, I installed an Eaton Posi limited slip differential. No more single-wheel-spinning getting stuck in my own driveway on the ice! Each problem with an old truck can represent an opportunity.
Back to our target drivers: If you're a buyer of limited means, the environment is likely not your first concern. These buyers forgo most repairs and just drive the truck until it utterly falls apart. They know that this is often the cheapest approach in the near term, and it's what they can afford. Buyers of cheap old trucks generally have no other option but to scrape the bottom of the barrel. If they had the money or the credit for a new truck they'd buy it. The true "cost to own" for a new vehicle far exceeds the original sticker price. There's the new truck sales and property taxes, depreciation, and insurance. If the average old truck buyer could afford any of that stuff they wouldn't be raking leaves trying to make ends meet.
If a Tree Falls in the Forest ...
One thing the owner of an old truck can relate to is spending less for gas. My proposed trip is all about showing old truck owners they can spend less on gas by leaving the emissions controls alone, doing sensible maintenance and adjusting their driving. Following these tips, plus a few affordable modifications, makes it possible for my old F-150 to make the proposed trip with just one stop to refuel.
As you might imagine, vehicle manufacturers have already sponsored similar trips to boost new truck sales. "Hypermilers" from CleanMPG got together in the spring of 2011 to complete a
similar trip in a new, nearly stock (tonneau added) , "Ecoboost" equipped Ford F-150 with a similar tank capacity (36 gallons vs 37.2). I've added a tonneau cover to my truck and then some ("EcoModding") and will combine these along with enhanced driving techniques at a more realistic speed of
55 vs 45 miles per hour and just one stop for fuel versus two. Everyone expects great fuel economy from the latest tech twin-turbocharged, direct fuel injected engine, but going coast-to-coast on a single stop at higher speeds in a comparatively ancient truck would be a real eye-opener.
A video documentary of this improbable accomplishment will have a far greater impact than just popping up and saying "I got xx.x miles per gallon", particularly because every truck owner I've discussed this with thinks it is impossible. Would crowds have flocked to Houdini if his escapes seemed likely?
Assuming that the proposed trip can be completed, what would be the point if you can't figure out a way to spread the word? If all I did was post the results here, who would hear about it? Of that small number, who would believe it? Who would care? Maximizing the benefit of this sort of project requires bringing together the broadcast media, environmental interest groups, the internet, or perhaps all three.
This sort of story needs a big human interest hook along with good entertainment value as it attempts to educate the viewing public about the environmental impact of these vehicles and the potential for improvement. There would be zero interest in tracking the journey of one fat old man across the country in a truck like mine, but if you substituted teams of young, thin, hip and attractive driver/navigators for the journey, that'd be another story.
The casting of volunteers would be crucial here because their camera presence and dramatic chemistry would be captured by "cab cams" during the journey as they worked to pilot the vehicle and maintain top fuel economy. The best outcome would involve many volunteers along the way, stopping at local media markets to feature state and local chapters of environmental groups participating in the project. A part-reality part-documentary like this could support some talking head segments with elected officials and any "famous" persons that could support the objectives of the program.
Production and Showbiz
The difference between having heard the titles of "1st Assistant Director ", "Key Grip", and "Best Boy", and being able to either do or direct their activities is large. My skills extend no farther than a YouTube presentation, and that means reaching a larger audience in a professional way requires lots of help. This project represents a great opportunity for anyone with video production skills to "strut their stuff", but at present the only funding I have comes out of my own pocket, and has been used for making the truck ready to go the distance.
Cable providers have numerous programs and channels dedicated to serving the apparently insatiable interest in anything that rolls. Trick My Truck, American Chopper and even The Great Food Truck Race, are just a handful of the programs already out there. It's not hard to imagine that there might be room in the market for a program that focused on helping drivers save money at the pump and protect the environment. I think "Trick Your Truck for Fuel Economy" might go over well in some markets!
The major stumbling block I face now is that I don't "know people". If you have connections or "know people that know people" I'd love to hear from you. There are volunteer possibilities, on camera and off, everywhere from the start line to the finish.
When you're the only one in the race, you pretty much get to make your own rules. That said, I want to propose some that will give the accomplishment more meaning and perhaps give others cause to join. Suggest or complain if you want them changed!
Limitations and Exclusions
- In most cases, vans are trucks with a different shell. Satisfy other requirements, and they can participate.
- My truck is a Ford, but all makes, foreign and domestic, are welcome.
- If you're to have an event about old trucks, some definition of "old" is in order. Since the average age for trucks is 9.6 years, I would suggest keeping it simple and going with the 2001 and earlier model years.
- I cheer vehicles without an internal combustion engine (ICE), but there is no place for them in a contest for old trucks and SUVs. Hybrid, diesel, propane and similar alternate fuels would need their own competitions. This is about gasoline engine economy and emissions. Making everything fit would be too hard.
- While restricted to ordinary gasoline, any commercially available street legal blend, brand or grade (E85, E-whatever) would be fine. But no illegal additives (lead, MTBE).
- Rating truck capacity with terms like "half-ton", "three-quarter ton" or "one-ton" is very imprecise. These terms are generally not used by government regulatory agencies, and have even less meaning when applied to vans and SUVs. This challenge will be based upon more specific ratings like Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), Unloaded/Unladen Vehicle Weight (UVW) and the like.
- Towing capacity is wonderful, but there is no towing in this challenge, and manufacturers play all sorts of oneupsmanship games about tow ratings (GCWR). For that reason, the event will be based around vehicles that have a payload or carrying capacity (GVWR-UVW) of 2,000 pounds or more. This is a ton, and yet my plain old "half-ton" F-150 satisfies the requirement, like many if not most other "half-ton" pickups.
- This challenge is for full-sized pickups, so small pickups like the Ford Ranger will need their own event.
Space Ships: Turn Left at Venus
Aerodynamics / Modifications for Fuel Economy
Phil Knox has accomplished incredible things as one of the senior statesmen for "Ecomodding", but I think it's easy to see why this isn't the objective of my enterprise. In the end, my project vehicle cannot look like a space ship. It must look and function as a working truck. And still, many of his techniques can be applied in a more subtle form with great effect.
- Cheap mods that deliver big results are favored over expensive ones that do little. The $7 wooden 4x4 bumper, good for two miles per gallon, and the scrap of vinyl siding turned air dam extension, for another two miles per gallon, beat out $1,000 in low rolling resistance tires that generate one-half mile per gallon.
- Aerodynamic mods are limited by the "working truck" requirement. No low rider trucks. The vehicle needs to reach the job site, so adverse angle of approach / departure modifications are out.
- Extreme air dams that would break or catch and not gracefully recover on parking curbs or job site obstructions are also out.
- Aerodynamic mods like tonneaus must not threaten the use of the vehicle as a "working truck", and must be undoable by a single person in a short time in most any weather / wind condition. Things like the ""Aerolid" will have to wait for the next run.
Modifications for Work and Safety
- For any given year model, Ford, GM, Chrysler and others produced multiple categories or series of trucks which could share the same engine, transmission or other accessories. This challenge should support upgrades that render the vehicle more capable of doing work, so long as the major components (engine, transmission, differential or similar) could have been originally or optionally supplied with that series vehicle or fit its frame. This means you could not install an exotic engine or similar in a truck or SUV that never had it.
- Safety / Towing: Heavier duty tires, suspension components, brakes, cooling system components, trailer hitches, winches or other accessories which make it more of a working truck are OK. Any upgrade to a heavier-duty differential available in that model year for your series vehicle is OK. Example: Substituting the 10.25 or 10.50 inch Ford "Sterling" differential for my truck (not done ... yet). Upgrading to a "locker" or limited-slip differential would be OK (done).
- While non-OEM add-on overdrives are out, manufacturers always made a variety of gear ratios available for the ring & pinion gear. Any mass production OEM gear that works is fine.
- Optional equipment, such as roof or "headache" racks, could be removed, but basic radio antennas, manufacturer ID badges, rain gutters and door handles would all have to stay.
- The project is also not about removing parts of the vehicle to reduce weight. This means the OEM tailgate stays on. But alloy wheels which retain the original weight rating would be OK, and if the bed liner was an option it could go, or you could substitute a spray-in.
- Similarly, safety items like windshield wipers and mirrors as specified by government safety would have to stay.
- Wide latitude for instrumentation changes / upgrades. Add a pyrometer if you want. Or a vacuum gauge. Or a trip computer, or tachometer, or navigation aide -- anything that helped you "drive smarter" would be OK.
- Run your choice of oil, air filter, spark plugs, and ignition.
- Modifications must ultimately make sense within the overall economic context of the truck. A multi-thousand dollar modification that yields 1/10th mile per gallon doesn't make any sense for a $2,000 truck!
- Electric appliance conversions (like electric fan), within reasonable costs.
- The demonstration is more about how driving skills and simple or affordable upgrades can make a big difference. Rebuilding an engine to bring it back to original factory specifications would be OK, but fancy pistons, valves, complete blue-printing, align boring, or micro-finishing of internal parts are out.
- As a general rule, the vehicle would have to be operated in a condition consistent with manufacturer recommendations. (i.e., you couldn't drive it without an air filter.)
- The vehicle would have to pass emissions inspection at both the beginning and end of the trip. No hollowing out catalytic converters, but you could pretty much have any muffler that wouldn't get you arrested / cited in any jurisdiction along the way.
- If the vehicle were "chipped" or "flashed" with alternate profiles, then every profile would have to pass the plug-in and "sniff" (tailpipe probe) test.
- Toe-in set within standards. Disc / drum brakes set to manufacturer drag standards.
- No "drafting". It' pretty much impossible to find someone actually driving 55-60mph anyway, but none of that for obvious safety considerations.
- For any breakdowns where the truck was towed farther along the route for repair, it would have to be delivered back to the same spot to restart the journey
- You could fill the tank(s) as completely as possible, taking up to 10 minutes per tank, so long as you departed immediately to avoid expansion and evaporative losses due to "topping off".
- You could drive with the windows up, with or without vent fan, with or without AC (if you could stand it).
- Tire inflation at the discretion of the driver
- The trip could be completed any any time of the year, and at any time of the day or night to avoid traffic jams.
- Except for grades over one percent the truck would maintain a near constant cruising speed as in normal driving.