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As design challenges go, the pickup truck could be compared with the Colt revolver pistol and the papal miter – the customer base has some firm beliefs about the way things should be. You may want to give the Holy Father a more aerodynamic hat style, or bring the Colt up to date with a quick-change bullet magazine, but it isn't going to happen. Some things are sacred.

Or are they? One of the great revelations at this year's Detroit car show is pickup truck technology. Over at the Ford booth, there was an F-150 made out of aluminum instead of steel. A generation ago, an aluminum F-150 would have seemed like apostasy – like battleships and Harley Davidson motorcycles, pickup trucks have to be made from steel – this was ordained.

Or so we believed.

Under the paint, the new F-150's structure conjures up an airplane, with formed aluminum panels that cut the truck's weight as much as 20 per cent. This is expected to yield significant fuel savings.

I recall a day back in the 1960s, when I rode with an Alberta cattle rancher across his vast spread in the foothills west of Calgary. He drove a Chevy Apache, a pickup truck that is now considered one of the all-time classics. The Apache was a tough, dead-simple machine, with a plain metal dash, a manual shifter and a gun rack in the back window. Fencing tools and bags of feed rolled around in the Apache's steel bed and a long rooster tail of dust hung behind us in the summer sky.

Few of today's pickup truck buyers are ranchers or tradesmen. But the cultural resonance of the pickup plays a key role in its popularity – it is a rolling symbol of hard work, rugged individualism and American history.

Selling a pickup truck today calls for a masterful blend of traditional elements and innovative technology.

Over at the Dodge Ram display, I admired a high-tech diesel pickup engine equipped with clean-burn technology and turbo-charger – a device you'd normally find on a racing car. And the Ram truck had more tricks up its sleeve, including an eight-speed automatic transmission and a digitally controlled air suspension that lowers the truck at highway speed, reducing its frontal area to save fuel.

Next up was the GM booth, where I perused pickups such as the Sierra and Silverado. Their interiors conjured up a luxury sedan, with leather seats, powerful stereos and Bluetooth phone hookups. But that was just the beginning – the trucks were also available with MyLink, a 4G LTE data system that turned them into rolling Internet hot spots.

On the dash was a screen that offered a customizable list of apps that included (searches out hotels and books a room), Glympse (a tracking system that shows you where your friends are), Cityseeker (finds fuel stations and restaurants) and Eventseeker (locates anything from a chamber music concert to a Civil War re-enactment site).

There's also a diagnostic system to monitor the truck's component; if there's something wrong, the system will find a GM dealer and book a service appointment for you.

Pickup trucks are big business. The Ford F-150, for example, has been the best-selling vehicle in North America since the mid-1980s. According to Ford, it sold an F-150 every 22 seconds last year.

Cruising through the Detroit show, I was struck by how much the pickup truck has changed since my ride in that Chev Apache. It had a bench seat and a carburetor and an ignition system that dated back to the age of steam, with plugs, points and a condenser. Almost anything on the Apache could be repaired with nothing more than a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.

Today's trucks are high-tech machines, with components that defy the do-it-yourselfer. And yet they share key ingredients with that long-lost Apache: They have a pickup bed, and make you feel that you could head out to the back forty to check the fence line. But this time, you can make a phone call while you do it.

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