Ford Facing Tough Challenge With Aluminum F-150s

“Built Ford Green” doesn’t seem to have the same USP ummmph as “Built Ford Tough” but the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Ramsey is reporting that the automaker “is working on one of the biggest gambles in its 108-year history: a pickup truck with a largely aluminum body.” 

The front-page piece says a 700-pound-or-so-lighter revamp of the bestselling F-150, starting with the 2014 model, would achieve about a 25% improvement in fuel economy and help the company meet new fuel-economy regulations. But Ramsey points out that using aluminum could “put Ford in a tough competitive situation” on several fronts.

First, aluminum is more expensive than steel. It’s also more difficult to work with and will require new manufacturing equipment. And the biggest challenge may be convincing “die-hard truck pickup truck owners,” as Forbes’ Joann Muller puts it, that aluminum is a worthy sheathing for their chariots of steel.

“One of the reasons they love their trucks so much is that they can take all kinds of abuse,” Muller writes. “Will aluminum prove to be as tough as steel?”

Karl Henkel of the Detroit News –- beat, perhaps, in his own driveway -- slams on the brakes with a quote from Ford spokesman Said Deep, who says it’s “premature to discuss specific approaches or solutions that we might use for future products” while pointing out that the company is “already a leader” in using aluminum. Henkel finds some skeptics, too, among the informed-observer class.

"You may see Ford use aluminum fenders, you may see aluminum door skins, but you're not going to see an aluminum pickup," 2953 Analytics analyst Jim Hall tells Henkel. "Full-aluminum structured vehicles are much more expensive to insure because they are much more expensive to repair." 

Also using the word “premature” about the report, Ford's Mike Levine points out to USA Today’s Chris Woodyard and James R. Healey that the F-150 has had an aluminum hood since 2004. 

“There's no question that Ford and its rivals are ‘running (aluminum-intensive pickup) prototypes,’ David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Auto Research tells the reporters. "They all are moving in that direction."  

Indeed, the Journal’s Ramsey also reports that Novelis is tripling its U.S. production of automotive sheet aluminum, which is used to make body panels. “Aluminum is not only economical in manufacturing and use; its 100% recyclability makes it the perfect material for modern living,” the Novelis website claims

A Bloomberg Businessweek hed earlier this month reported that “Alcoa Beats Estimates As Automakers Buy More Aluminum.”

Many luxury cars also use aluminum and the weight savings trickle down, Woodyard and Healy write. “With less weight to push around, a vehicle can have a smaller engine, brakes and other components, adding to the fuel savings.”

The Gannett reporters also cite history, which shows that “hidebound pickup buyers embrace gas-saving technology” and are “open to change.” Ford “boldly introduced turbocharged and direct-injected V-6 engines on pickups in February 2011, as an alternative to V-8s,” they write. “Today, 43% of F-150s sold have EcoBoost engines.”

Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs says competitors will be watching very closely to see what Ford does. And whatever it is, they’re going “to start doing the same kinds of things," she tells Henkel. "[Ford] won't be out there on their own forever.”

Ducker Worldwide managing director Dick Schultz tells Forbes that the amount of steel in light vehicles “will decline to less than 50% of the curb weight over the next decade” and that “aluminum is about to register tremendous growth as the OEMs reduce weight by at least 400 pounds per vehicle to meet the new fuel economy regulations.” 

In other words, like it or not, those current 19 mpg combined and 23 mpg on the highway figures for the F-150 will have to drastically improve. U.S. vehicle fleets need to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

“Ultimately, the next-generation Ford F-150 will be, at least in part, a so-called ‘compliance vehicle,’ built to meet the specifications of the law more than to accommodate buyer needs or company plans, much like some electric cars…,” writes The Car Connection’s Nelson Ireson. “While the ‘compliance car’ mentality may not result in the vehicle buyers truly want, it may yield the vehicle the market -- and the environment -- truly needs.”

And we should never underestimate the power of copywriters to convince us that that we do, indeed, want it.

Tags: automotive
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