Why Four Cylinders are the New Six in Trucking

Written by Shaun Skinner, president of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

Most forecasts predict that the population of working age adults in the U.S. is going to increase dramatically between now and 2050, and will continue to climb until the end of the century and beyond. However, unlike the population growth that followed World War II, we don’t anticipate that these adults will be fleeing to the suburbs. Instead, every indication is that there will be significant growth in urban areas — particularly in cities with populations of more than 1 million.

We think this is going to change the face of trucking, especially for the type of medium-duty trucks people see downtown, at shopping centers and in their neighborhoods daily.

That’s why Isuzu and some of our competitors are starting to think about what type of truck can meet the increasing need for pickup and delivery in urban areas, while also providing excellent fuel economy and a low cost of operation.

One area we felt was ripe for the picking was reducing the size of engines.

We need look no further than the car industry to see that a dramatic downsizing of engines is already taking place with passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs. When people shopped for vehicles 10 to 15 years ago, there was a good chance their new vehicle was equipped with a V8 engine. Today many cars, pickups and SUVs traditionally powered by larger V8s now use six-cylinder engines. In some cases, we are seeing four-cylinder engines in vehicles that we would have once expected to feature a larger eight-cylinder engine as standard. An example of this is Cadillac’s new full-size CT6 sedan. It comes standard with a four-cylinder turbocharged engine.

This trend is possible because technology has come so far that engineers are now squeezing horsepower and torque numbers that would have once been thought impossible out of fewer cylinders and decreased displacement.

The commercial truck industry has been slower to adopt this trend because of the perception that smaller engines just can’t do the job or won’t hold up over the long haul. However, today’s technology allows us to build engines that provide comparable performance, but in smaller sizes. And the engine’s lifecycle expectancies have not been compromised with this increased performance.

A smaller engine offers better fuel economy, which reduces the cost of operation – a crucial issue for truck operators and owners. This is paramount in today’s competitive business environment. Much of the world is already adopting small-engine technology. What was once a six-cylinder based truck is now powered by four-cylinder engines in many regions. Expect this trend to pick up momentum in the U.S. – not only because it saves money, but also because it will be a helpful tool in meeting increasingly stringent emission (including CO2) regulations.

That’s why we introduced our all-new 2018 Isuzu FTR medium-duty truck at the Work Truck Show in March with a standard four-cylinder engine. This class of truck has been historically powered by a six-cylinder engine, but commercial truck customers are becoming more concerned about how the vehicle performs – and less by what size engine is under the hood (or in Isuzu’s case – under the cab).

Increasing technology, pressure to reduce the cost of ownership, regulatory issues tied to emission reductions and operators’ ability to judge engine performance – not size – will make this a trend you should get used to.

Like many companies, Isuzu dedicates a vast amount of effort predicting and preparing for the future. We have been the No. 1-selling class 3-5 low cab forward brand for 30 years, and we ended 2015 with an 85 percent market share in that class of truck. We believe moving our U.S. trucks to four-cylinder engines to meet tougher emissions regulations and sizing the vehicles for increasingly congested urban environments will help us maintain that share.

While we can never be certain where the future will take us – you can see how we use what we know and what we can forecast to help drive the product decisions we make today. One thing we know for sure – change in the future is inevitable and what once might have seemed improbable or impossible may not be.

Editor’s note: Shaun Skinner was promoted to president of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America this year after spending eight years as executive vice president and general manager.