ANN ARBOR, MI – Despite an early track record that is spotty at best, hybrid powertrains will play a big role in future light trucks as a result of toughening fuel-economy regulations, a top General Motors Co. engineer predicts.

Only about 1,000 fullsize pickups have been sold in the U.S. with hybrid powertrains so far this year, according to Ward’s data, while total hybrid light-truck sales barely top the 20,000-unit mark – less than 1% of the truck market overall.

“Hybrid sales are highly correlated to gas prices,” notes Michael Omotoso, senior manager-global powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.

Related document: U.S. Light Vehicle Sales - June 2010

GM is alone in offering hybrid pickups for sale, with Chrysler Group LLC, a partner in development of the 2-Mode system GM employs, having canceled plans for a Ram hybrid earlier this year. Chrysler is planning low-volume sales of a plug-in Ram pickup using a different hybrid powertrain in 2011.

Meeting the 2016 corporate average fuel economy bogey of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) for all light vehicles “will be a challenge with trucks,” says J. Gary Smyth, executive director-North American Science Labs for GM.

“To maintain a full (product) portfolio, we’re going to have to add a lot of technology,” he tells a conference here sponsored by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “We’re looking at significant hybridization to make it happen.”

Even if 2016 regulations can be met by taking weight out of the vehicle, downsizing conventional powertrains and making other less-costly tweaks, auto makers will be forced to lay the groundwork for even higher fuel-economy and emissions targets to come, Smyth says.

Already, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and California Air Resources Board are exploring post-2016 mileage and emissions standards.

Auto makers have to look beyond 2016, Smyth says. “Where we’re going with regulations is driving significant hybridization.”

Cost has been one of the issues with market acceptance of GM’s hybrid pickups. A base Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid pickup starts at about $40,000, about a $10,000 premium from an entry-level Silverado 1500 Crew Cab model.

The system also is offered on some fullsize SUVs, and GM is planning a plug-in hybrid utilizing a smaller version of the 2-Mode technology but still has not designated a vehicle to get the powertrain.

“It is excellent engineering, but expensive,” one Porsche AG engineer said of the GM 2-Mode system in September.

Smyth says GM is working on next-generation hybrid systems that will be lower cost, but he is cryptic about the 2-Mode’s role in the future.

“Certainly, we’re putting significant investment into the hybrid systems to continue to develop new generations of them that will have no compromise for the customer,” he tells Ward’s. “We have roadmaps on the second generation, the third generation. We look at every subsystem that is out there to understand what we need to do from a technology perspective.

“For hybrids to be successful in volume, you have to drive down the costs significantly from where we are today.”

Asked if the 2-Mode lives on through that process, Smyth says, “I don’t want to comment on where it’s going, but the 2-mode concept is a very efficient concept.”

Smyth also stops short of suggesting other pickup manufacturers will have no choice but to follow GM down the hybrid path post-2016.

“Well, they’re going to have to add significant technology to fullsize trucks and SUVs to meet the requirements in 2016 and beyond,” he says. “No doubt about it.”