Ford Atlas Concept, the sneak peek at the future of F-Series pickups

This was supposed to be the Detroit auto show where General Motors put a spotlight on the forthcoming refresh of the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickups, and Ram touted its win as North American Truck of the Year. Instead, their thunder has been hauled away by the show's surprise, the Ford Atlas concept — highlighting where Ford will likely take the next F-Series pickups, and what it will take to meet future fuel economy standards.With a new F-Series pickup, Ford's most profitable and best-selling vehicle, not due for a redesign until the 2015 model year, the Atlas was short of key details, like specific engine designs or output. But the trend lines show where Ford has to go: producing more power while burning less fuel, and to that end the Atlas prepares F-Series buyers for a world where every piece of the truck plays some role in higher mileage.

Take the wheels. If they seem a bit busy, it's because they contain shutters that close at higher speeds, improving aerodynamics. There's also air dams that deploy in front of the wheels and behind the massive chrome grille for the same reason. Ford chief engineer Raj Nair said the new truck will need to lose up to 700 lbs. in order to meet the U.S. fuel economy standards rising between now and 2025, including some "funky" things like aluminum frames.

"It's always getting harder. The rate of fuel economy improvement that needed is ever increasing, both from customer demand and regulatory requirement," Nair says.

Ford has successfully shown truck buyers will choose something other than a V-8 engine if given a practical alternative; some 43 percent of F-150 buyers pick a twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6, and some version of that engine powers the Atlas. The concept had a start-stop engine system; Nair said Ford was still exploring a potential deal with Toyota to jointly design and build a hybrid system for pickups and larger vehicles.

As for the Atlas' style, the ideas seem less far out than close to production. The massive chrome grille will look familiar to anyone who's seen a Super Duty. High-end versions of the F-Series trucks are already luxury vehicles, so lux-world touches like LED headlamps and on-board WiFi don't seem surprising. Other technology aimed at helping drivers -- a 360-degree roof camera, a cargo cradle built into the tailgate for additional storage -- also seem well within reach.

While Chevy played conservative with the new Silverado, the Atlas suggests Ford will be willing to take more risks when its turn comes — and stealing the spotlight back will be more difficult.