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Truck Sale Profits Help Automakers Develop Future Technologies


Americans are buying more and more trucks, record numbers. And with gas prices falling, they are getting bigger, faster and fancier. NPR's Sonari Glinton takes us on a tour of three new trucks and tells us what's new for consumers.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm at the big car show in Detroit. And here not only at the Detroit show do we have pickup trucks, we have monster, ridiculous pickup trucks. We're going to do a little tour of some of the more interesting ones, and we're going to start here at a company that's not really known for their pickup trucks, Nissan.

RANDY RODRIGUEZ: My name's Randy Rodriguez. I'm a project lead designer for Nissan Design America.

GLINTON: And so you designed what looks like the transformer truck from Nissan. What does it - describe it for me.

RODRIGUEZ: When we were looking for inspiration, it goes back to that Greek mythology. And we really wanted to play that out with this truck. And, like, the front end of the truck is actually designed from me watching all these movies, like "300," "Spartacus," "Gladiator," "Troy." And, like, that helmet, it just really looks tough and menacing, and that's really what we wanted to put on the front end of this truck.

GLINTON: I can't imagine driving this. I mean, who are you designing this for?

RODRIGUEZ: So I think it would appeal to anybody who loves this, you know, off-road adventure, or even likes this image of looking super tough and kind of like, you know, a bad boy, just having the biggest, baddest truck out there.

GLINTON: The next stop on our truck tour is the place that sells the most trucks, Ford. We're coming to look at their super truck. And I'm going to meet a guy named Eric Peterson.

ERIC PETERSON: But this customer, they use their truck sometimes as toys, as something that enable their recreation. So it enables adventures that - in something that they can't do anywhere else.

GLINTON: I can go off-roading in an F-150.

PETERSON: You sure can.

GLINTON: I can drive an F-150 in the snow.

PETERSON: Yeah, you can't take it at 60 miles an hour and bogging through the sand and not worry about getting stuck. And it's that kind of ultimate capability that people want.

GLINTON: And now we're at Honda with Davis Adams. And we're going to look at their truck, which is not a super truck, but...

DAVIS ADAMS: It is a super truck.

GLINTON: Oh, look at you.

ADAMS: (Laughter).

GLINTON: If those trucks were for people who are racing, who is this truck for?

ADAMS: You're looking at someone who can commute every day. They're going to get good gas mileage. They're going to be able to park it nicely. It's going to be comfortable the entire time they're moving around. And it comes with all the amenities they expect from the SUVs they came out of.

GLINTON: OK, so now we found the person who doesn't work for a car company to talk to us about the trucks. I'm here with David Zenlea, and he is with Road and Track. Fuel economy standards are - the regulations say, some more cars, some more fuel-efficient vehicles. I know when - so when you look at the trucks, you're like, what are you guys doing?

DAVID ZENLEA: It seems like they're using the money from the trucks and the profits that they're making to invest wisely in future technologies. You have autonomous technologies. You hybrid technologies. All this stuff costs a lot of money to develop. And meanwhile, you have one thing, trucks, that don't cost a lot to develop and that people want. So they're making money on those things now, and it's kind of a good insurance policy. Even if everything crashes tomorrow, the money they're making today on these trucks will help them.

GLINTON: So you heard it here, folks, tomorrow's future hybrids brought to you by today's monster pickup trucks. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.