The Ford F-150 is in trouble–and Ford may be, too

The Ford F-150 has been America’s best-selling vehicle for more than three decades. But according to Bloomberg, the king of the heap may be in danger of losing his crown.

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out new fuel economy standards for U.S. vehicles. Those standards are being gradually phased in until 2025, at which point automakers doing business in the U.S. will be required to earn a fleet-wide fuel economy of 54.5 mpg. Targets are different for cars and trucks, though: cars will need to hit an average of 62 mpg, while heavier trucks, vans, and SUVs will be held to the lower goal of 44 mpg.*

Unfortunately, much of the F-150 lineup isn’t meeting annual improvement benchmarks. Despite Ford’s ambitious, $1 billion-plus redesign of the pickup for the 2015 model year–a redesign that included offering smaller, turbocharged engines and an aluminum body–many 2016 models aren’t hitting fuel-economy or emissions goals. According to Gopal Duleep at research firm H-D Systems, some 40 percent of F-150s are falling short.

Of course, that means that 60 percent of the trucks are in line with EPA standards, but those tend to be smaller, two-wheel-drive models. Bringing bigger trucks up to speed will be tougher.

Trouble ahead?

If the F-150 doesn’t hit the EPA’s benchmarks, Ford could find itself in deep trouble. As Duleep notes, automakers can pay fines for not meeting fuel economy standards, but if emissions goals aren’t met, the EPA can stop sales.

That would be a huge blow to Ford, which depends on the F-150 for 31 percent of its North American sales and half of its profits.

Ford is working overtime to catch up to federal standards. It’s developing hybrid and diesel trucks that could offer dramatic improvements, but there are plenty of obstacles standing in the company’s way.

Low fuel prices, for example, are making consumers less mindful of fuel efficiency, which could diminish interest in gas-sipping alternatives. Then, too, there’s competition to consider: Chevrolet in particular has become awfully aggressive with its recent attacks on the F-150.

Will the F-150 prevail? That depends on everything from oil prices to the cost of technology to changing consumer needs. Bloomberg’s overview of the matter is on the long side, but if you have time, it’s well worth a read

* Bear in mind, those are CAFE figures, derived from lab tests and complex formulae. Real-world fuel economy will be lower.