Chicago 2014: GM’s Jeff Luke On The Future Of Trucks

The 2014 Chevrolet Silverado may have been named North American Truck of the Year, but General Motors’ global full-size truck chief engineer, Jeff Luke, still has plenty of ideas about pickup trucks.

“We’ve got some neat things coming, whether it’s styling stuff, or performance stuff, or powertrain stuff, features,” he says, although he declines to clarify exactly what those changes might include.

One eventual possibility is a performance version of the Silverado, whether an off-road model like the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor or a street truck like the F-150 Tremor. The main factor preventing GM from selling those so far is determining whether there’s a large sales opportunity for that kind of vehicle.

“We know how to do all of those things, it’s just a matter of which ones are the right ones to do,” Luke says. “From an engineering standpoint, I know how to engineer both a sport truck that was a go-fast truck, and I know to do an off-road truck… You could do them all, the question is do you need to?”

On fuel economy, Luke believes the Silverado (and twinned GMC Sierra) have no worries despite stiff competition from other Big Three trucks. While he admits that the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel’s fuel economy figures are high, he notes that diesel engines have a higher purchase cost and that their fuel costs more than gasoline — both factors that can make the economic payoff of a diesel truck unrealistic. “You’ve got to balance performance with the cost of what these things are,” he says.

When it comes to the aluminum bodywork of the 2015 Ford F-150, which is expected to trim 700 pounds from the new truck’s curb weight, Luke also claims to be unconcerned. A 2014 Chevrolet Silverado is already 250 pounds lighter than a current 2014 Ford F-150, he says, and notes that Chevrolet uses aluminum for the hood and suspension components on the Silverado. “There are multiple ways to tackle the fuel economy challenge.”

Smaller Trucks, Luxurious Trucks

For Chevrolet, the next move is the launch of the midsize 2015 Colorado and the 2015 GMC Canyon. GM is in a unique position with these models, as neither Ram nor Ford has expressed any solid interest in bringing a smaller pickup truck to the U.S. market. Luke said he sees four main groups of buyers for the Colorado and Canyon: loyalists who are still driving an old Chevy S10; Nissan Frontier or Toyota Tacoma owners ready to upgrade to what Luke describes as, “a much better truck;” Ford and Ram converts ready to downsize; and crossover buyers looking for more practicality.

“We think this segment is much bigger than what others are currently viewing it as,” he says. “All of our research suggests that a lot of people just don’t want a bigger truck.”

“And I didn’t say that we’re going to be trying to take from Silverado or Sierra [sales],” he continues, underlining that GM expects only a small number of full-size truck buyers to downsize to the Colorado or Canyon because, “The guy driving his Silverado wants to keep his Silverado.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Chevrolet will continue to sell high-end trucks like the Silverado High Country and Sierra Denali. Luke says that GM says sales of expensive pickups increase dramatically last year. He says that the company has found many truck buyers now buy one luxurious pickup that can be used for work and family hauling, rather than buying one truck and one family vehicle.

“That’s why we’re really focusing to differentiate ourselves on refinement,” he says. “These things [the Silverado and Sierra] drive every bit as nice as most luxury cars do today. And just as quiet if not quieter.”

At the same time, there is a practical limit to how much trucks can move upmarket before core buyers are shut out.

“Pickup trucks are largely the fabric of our culture,” Luke says. “You’ve got to make sure in this segment that people can still afford this stuff.”