New efforts are under way to bring more commercial features to the light-duty segment.

Over one-third of all the vehicles on the road these days are trucks, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and the large majority of those trucks are what the federal government calls "LTVs," or light trucks and vans.

While commercial light trucks make up a sizable portion of the LTVs out on the road, most are being used for personal transportation as vans, pickups, and "utes," making them the hottest sellers in the automobile industry. For fleets, this popularity has been a two-edged sword: Manufacturers have invested heavily in new light-truck designs and components, but most of that investment has been geared toward making LTVs better personal vehicles and not towards improving commercial functionality.

Now, however, it looks like manufacturers are launching major new efforts to address the needs and desires of the commercial light-truck user. Engines, drivetrains, chassis, and bodies are being re-examined and measured for performance against real-world commercial applications. And that bodes well for fleets that rely on light trucks.

Take Ford Motor Co., for example. Starting with the 1999 model year, it will offer a separate all-new commercial version of its F-Series light truck. Called the Super Duty F-Series, it will be available in GVWs ranging from 8,800 lb. all the way up to 19,000 lb. All will be offered in regular cab, a four-door "Super Cab," and crew cab models with long or short beds, or cab chassis configurations.

The standard gasoline engine for the new Super Duty F-Series is the 5.4-liter Triton V8 rated at 235 hp., while the V10 6.8-liter Triton rated at 275 hp. will be offered as an option.

Modifications to the Navistar International 7.3-liter diesel option will boost power to 235 hp. and peak torque to 500 lb.-ft.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard with the gasoline engines, while diesel-powered Super Duties will come with a 6-speed manual.

Replacing the E4OD, the optional 4R100 automatic transmission has been specifically designed for towing and other commercial applications. All models and cab configurations of the new Super Duty chassis, including dual-rear wheel versions, will also be offered with 4-wheel drive.

General Motors hasn't officially released any information about its new light trucks, but it has been showing a concept vehicle called the GMC Sierra ACE that it says "provides a glimpse at GMC's next-generation full-size pickup." Like all show vehicles, it sports spectacular paint and interior treatments that would have little value in a work truck. But underneath the pretty face it also carries a number of features that show GM's interest in the commercial light-truck user and are a good bet to show up on the next Sierra production models.

For example, the ACE's electrical system uses what GM calls "bussed electrical center architecture," which centralizes all of the vehicle's electrical system functions in one area. That not only simplifies the wiring harness, but also cuts down on power loss and makes the electrical system easier to service, according to GM.

The ACE is longer and wider than the current Sierra and features a stronger and stiffer but lighter frame achieved with new manufacturing and assembly techniques. It is also fitted with 4-wheel disc brakes.

The biggest news, however, is under the hood. Power is supplied by a new generation of GM's 5.7-liter V8. Called the Vortec 5300, it is said to be lighter but more powerful and more fuel-efficient, producing 265 hp. at 5,000 rpm and a peak torque of 320 lb.-ft. at 2,800 rpm. The cooling system is also new, featuring a modulated fan clutch, increased coolant capacity, and an extended 150,000-mi. drain interval. It also boasts a full complement of dash-mounted monitors, including an engine hour meter, oil level and quality monitor, and transmission temperature gauge.

The show truck's transmission is GMC's current 4L60-E 4-speed automatic, but with one major modification. It includes a driver-selectable tow/haul mode for more aggressive shifts under heavier loads.

The big news at Dodge for commercial light-truck users is, starting this month, availability of the Cummins turbocharged ISB 5.9-liter diesel in the Ram pickup and chassis cab models. Replacing the older Cummins B5.9, the new engine features the company's latest generation of full electronic fuel control, and a new 24-valve head said to produce more low-end torque and faster response.

The new Cummins option provides a major boost in power. Mated with a 5-speed manual, it will produce 235 hp. and peak torque of 460 lb.-ft., compared with 215 hp. and 440 lb.-ft. for the B5.9. Fleets ordering Chrysler's electronically controlled 4-speed automatic with the ISB will get a 35-hp. boost to 215 hp., with 420 lb.-ft. of peak torque.

Not all of the commercial light-truck news is confined to the Big Three automakers, as others also begin to recognize fleets as an important market for smaller vehicles.

Freightliner Corp. is the current market leader in heavy trucks and is rapidly growing its medium-duty and midrange lines as well. Now, according to company CEO and president Jim Hebe, the time might be right to add new light-truck options.

The company already provides light-truck chassis through the Freightliner Custom Chassis operation, but recently it has also been showing dealers and the press new light vans produced by its parent Daimler Benz for European and South American markets. As American fleets take on more supply-chain responsibilities for their customers, such smaller trucks might begin to make sense in this country, according to Hebe.

"We intend to be a player in every aspect of the commercial truck market," he recently told Freightliner dealers. "As the freight-hauling market changes, our product line must grow to reflect those changes."

While it still remains to be seen if light trucks do take on more of the country's distribution chores, the federal government has made it clear that it expects LTVs to participate more fully in attempts to control air pollution. Although they've raised more questions than they've answered, attempts to foster so-called "zero-emissions" vehicle use in areas with especially tough pollution problems all factor in future commercial fleet vehicle designs to some degree or another.

Natural gas conversions are already becoming more common in urban fleet applications, but after some initial enthusiasm, production versions of electric-powered light trucks seem to be lagging behind. Just last month, however, Union City Body Co. (UCBC) began commercial production of the CitiVan, an all-electric delivery van that is already seeing duty in mail and field service in Boston.

Carrying a standard aluminum van body, the new truck is rated 11,000 lb. GVW and has a payload capacity of 3,500 lb. The motor is a 94-hp. direct-drive AC induction unit supplied by Solectria, located in Boston, UCBC's partner in this project. Power is stored in a bank of lead-acid maintenance-free batteries, which are recharged by connecting the vehicle to a 220V line.

Top speed for the electric van is said to be 50 mph and its range when fully loaded is 40 miles, obviously limiting the CitiVan to local, urban applications. Initial cost of the zero-emissions truck is "high," according to UCBC, but is somewhat offset by substantially lower operating and fuel costs. Government and business subsidies and tax credits for zero-emissions vehicles can also help offset the initial cost.

While zero-emissions vehicles are never likely to make up more than a small percentage of the country's light trucks, the federal government also has its eye on the far larger population of gasoline- and diesel-powered light trucks.

In general, the current popularity of LTVs is being blamed for an increase in overall vehicle fuel consumption, resulting in higher levels of carbon dioxide and other automotive emissions. According to the Energy Dept., light trucks now account for nearly one-third of all fuel consumed by on-road vehicles in the U.S., and that percentage is expected to continue growing over the next 20 years.

Attempts to require sharp improvements in LTV fuel economy through new federal CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards have run into stiff opposition, so it seems that the Clinton Administration has decided to take a different approach.

In February, Secretary of Energy Federico F. Pena announced a joint government/ business research effort to improve light-truck fuel economy by 50% within the next five years. The plan, which must be approved by Congress, calls for the federal government to invest $50 million in the research, matched by at least $50 million from light-truck and component manufacturers.

Of course, it's a long road between proposal and action, but one way or another the government is determined to address light-truck fuel consumption. The question for fleets is, when and at what cost?