The recent excellent article by my colleague Jennifer Sensiba about the advantages of a body-on-frame architecture for trucks created a heated discussion. The versatility of a body-, or better, structure-on-frame architecture for the hundreds of different special purpose applications of professional vehicles is beyond dispute. The cost advantage of building one-off structures on such a platform are huge.
The question is whether the latest Tesla model is a commercial vehicle (for which this might matter) or a mass-market passenger vehicle (a “car” in good American parlance). A commercial vehicle with hundreds of special-purpose versions should be built on a frame. A mass-market passenger vehicle is better served by a unibody architecture that enables low costs for millions of nearly identical vehicles.
The USA and Europe each have an auto market of between 17 and 18 million vehicles a year. In Europe, there are 2.5 million commercial vehicles of all types sold per year. The rest are passenger or luxury vehicles. In the USA, there are just over 5 million passenger vehicles. The rest are “trucks.”
Perhaps there are slight differences in the vehicles purchased on each side of the pond. In Europe, we have more public transport buses. We also have more rail and shipping, which could lead to fewer semi trucks for road transport than in the USA. This does not explain the 10 million unit difference between the commercial vehicles in the EU and the trucks in the USA.
In the EU, the classification is functional. When a vehicle is used to generate revenue, it is a commercial vehicle. All others are passenger vehicles. Taxi cabs are the main exception to this rule.
In the USA, the classification is technical. When it is a body on frame, it is a truck. When it is a unibody design, or “exoskeleton” as Musk calls it, it is a car. Of course, there are also exceptions. A unibody SUV, better known as a CUV, is still a truck. The Tesla pickup will also be classified as a truck. As always, technology evolves and does not respect the boundaries of last year.
When looking at these numbers and thinking of a Walmart parking lot, or parents dropping off their children at school, it is clear that many vehicles are built on a frame, like luxury pickups and SUVs, which are generally used as passenger vehicles.
This difference is not only created by a difference in customer preferences. Government regulations concerning taxes and emissions are also influencing this market development.
In 2018, there were about 2.9 million pickup trucks sold in the USA. Of those, there were likely about 2 million passenger pickup trucks. Of the about 1 million commercial pickups, I guess half of them are normal run-of-the-mill pickups, without any special enhancements.
A quick back of the envelope gives ~83% that could use a unibody design. I could be too optimistic, but it is unlikely lower than 75%. For 75% of pickup buyers, a unibody would make a better vehicle at a lower price. It would lead to special purpose commercial vehicles prices rising for the reasons Jennifer describes. The commercial trucks lose the economy of scale provided by the passenger cars built on a frame.
The moral question is, should the standard “pickup car” buyers subsidize the special purpose “pickup-truck” buyers?
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