A chance meeting in an airport lobby between the top executives of Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. has evolved into a deal between the auto giants to jointly develop a gas-electric hybrid engine for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
The companies signed the agreement Monday to share development costs, saying they want to make the technology more affordable for customers and bring it to market faster. Many details have yet to be worked out, but both said their vehicles would remain unique even if they share the same drive systems.
The deal will help both companies meet more stringent fuel economy and pollution standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, while at the same time keeping larger vehicles viable if gas prices continue to rise.
"Trucks and SUVs are indispensable for the U.S. society," said Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota's executive vice president for research and development.
The companies aren't sure yet what kind of gas mileage the system will get, but they know that hybrid trucks would help automakers meet U.S. fuel economy standards that require new vehicles to average 56.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Trucks will have lower mileage targets but still would have to improve to meet the standards.
Neither company would say what vehicles the system would go into, but it was clear they are targeting pickup trucks, which are big sellers for both. Ford's F-Series pickup is the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., and Toyota is still trying to break into the full-sized pickup market with its Tundra model.
Both companies now sell thousands of hybrid cars and trucks worldwide, but they will have to develop a different system with enough power to haul and tow heavy loads.
Derrick Kuzak, Ford's product development chief, said that although the trucks could have the same engine and transmission, each will be different.
"What makes them uniquely a Ford truck will continue to be there with a hybrid powertrain that we co-develop with Toyota," he said.
Currently the F-150 with a six-cylinder turbocharged engine gets an estimated 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway, while a six-cylinder Tundra gets 16 in the city and 20 on the highway. Both will have to improve if gas prices keep rising and as government fuel economy standards increase.
Kuzak said Ford expects that 10 to 20 percent of Ford's vehicles will be hybrids or electric by 2020. "This is just a reflection of that plan," he said.
It will take a year for the companies to figure out who will do what research, Kuzak said. After that, they would sign a definitive agreement that would lay out timelines to develop the technology, he said. It will take at least two or three years after that to develop a system, and the companies hope to bring it to market this decade.