By Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co on Tuesday took the wraps off the latest version of its Super Duty pickup, providing a look at how the U.S. automaker will manage one of the biggest challenges confronting Detroit.
The problem: How to modernize the largest combustion pickups to keep demand strong and profits flowing, without over-investing at a time when automakers need to spend on developing electric vehicles and battery factories.
At Ford, many of the newest things about the new Super Duty relate to connectivity and business productivity software that Ford hopes will generate revenue over the life of the vehicle. Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley has stressed the importance of software-driven features and is hiring more executives with digital commerce experience.
Ford will install 5G modems in 2023 model Super Duty trucks to enable services such as driver behavior monitoring and digital paperwork systems for fleet operators. Dashboards have been reprogrammed to make it easier for companies that install specialized equipment such as hoisting arms to connect controls for their gear into the truck's displays. Onboard scales will measure payloads and the new Super Duties will have more power plugs.
The Super Duty, General Motors Co's rival Chevrolet Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD heavy duty pickups and heavy duty versions of Stellantis NV's Ram pickup are among the most profitable vehicles sold today by the Detroit Three automakers, or any rival.
Ford said the Super Duty franchise generates "more revenue than many Fortune 500 companies, including Southwest Airlines, Marriott International or Nordstrom." Southwest reported $15.8 billion in revenue for 2021.
Powered by big diesel or gasoline engines, Super Duty prices start at $41,240, but can range up to more than $100,000 for a fully loaded model.
Heavy-duty pickups such as the Super Duty and Silverado HD do dirty work in oil fields and on construction sites. But many are sold to individuals who use them to tow large trailers, and want the same connectivity and comfort features they would expect in a luxury SUV.
For now, battery electric powertrains cannot provide the same towing capability and driving range for heavy-duty pickups as combustion powerplants. Both Ford and GM are upgrading existing engines and transmissions, but not investing what it would take to develop new powertrains from scratch.
Ford on Tuesday unveiled the latest generation of the Super Duty at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, not far from the factory where most Super Duty trucks are built.
Ford said Tuesday it will spend $700 million modernizing the Kentucky Truck plant, and expects to hire another 500 workers at the plant to support Super Duty production.
One day ahead of Ford's Super Duty reveal, Chevrolet outlined a list of improvements to its Silverado HD heavy pickup line, which trails the Super Duty in sales.
Chevrolet said it will now offer only a 10-speed Allison transmission on its heavy duty Silverado trucks. The 6.6 liter diesel engine's horsepower and torque get a boost, and certain models get upgraded interiors with bigger display screens.
(Reporting By Joe White; Editing by David Gregorio)