Aluminum Revolution: Ford introduces a new F-150

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — Ford pickups have been doing the
country’s work for 66 years. They’ve hauled grain, towed logs and plowed
snow. They’ve cleared debris after tornadoes and pulled floats in the
Rose Bowl parade.
They’ve shouldered those loads with parts forged from steel. Until now.
Monday, Ford unveils a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out
of aluminum. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the
5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its
heft and an industry still heavily reliant on steel. The change is
Ford’s response to small-business owners’ desire for a more
fuel-efficient and nimble truck — and stricter government requirements
on fuel economy. And it sprang from a challenge by Ford’s CEO to move
beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
either moving ahead and you’re improving and you’re making it more
valuable and more useful to the customer or you’re not," Chief Executive
Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive
use of aluminum ever in a truck. And this isn’t just any truck. F-Series
trucks — which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250
— have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the last 32
years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds.
The key
question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is: Will
customers embrace such a radical change? Dealers who have seen the new
F-150 say they expect to encounter some skepticism, but the change had
to be made.
"We’re aggressive, stretching the envelope," said Sam
Pack, owner of four Ford dealerships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "I
think you have to do that. If you don’t, then you get into that
predicament of being a ‘me too’ vehicle."
Still, it’s a big risk.
Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells,
making trucks a $7.6 billion profit center in the U.S. alone last year.
And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle
launches, adding to dealers’ worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been
the subject of seven recalls.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late
this year. While aluminum is more expensive that steel, Ford truck
marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the
current price range. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of
$24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
difficult to calculate how much more aluminum costs, since there are
different grades of aluminum and steel. Pete Reyes, the F-150’s chief
engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its
recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by
slimming down the engine and other components, since they won’t have to
move so much weight.
Aluminum was used on cars even before the
first F-Series went on sale in 1948. It’s widely used on sporty,
low-volume cars now, like the Tesla Model S electric sedan and the Land
Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.
has spent decades researching the metal. Twenty years ago, the company
built a fleet of 20 all-aluminum experimental sedans. Later, it used
aluminum on exotic cars from Aston-Martin and Jaguar, brands it used to
own. But up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods
and used steel for the rest.
New government fuel economy
requirements, which mandate that automakers’ cars and trucks get a
combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to
aluminum. Chrysler’s Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup,
getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg.
Ford won’t say what the new truck’s fuel economy will be, but says it
will trump the competition.
That could be an especially important
incentive for landscapers, carpenters and other small business owners
focused on their bottom line.
"I think that’s going to outweigh
the aluminum part of it," said Brian Jarrett, a Ford dealer in Winter
Haven, Fla., who hasn’t yet seen the new truck.
Improvements in
aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example,
Alcoa Inc. — one of Ford’s suppliers for the F-150 — figured out a way
to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded
together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together
parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin
Lowery said.
And Ford is able to take more risks. When the F-150
was last redesigned, in the mid-2000s, Ford was losing billions each
year and resources were spread thin. But by 2010, when the company gave
the green light to an all-aluminum truck, Ford was making money again.
CEO Alan Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who joined Ford in 2006,
encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led
early development of Boeing’s Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with
even lighter-weight plastics to be more efficient and fly further.
becomes more efficient once you take the weight out," Mulally says. He
expects aluminum to be used across Ford’s model lineup in the future.
is convinced truck buyers will accept the change. The company says the
new truck will tow more and haul more, since the engine doesn’t have to
account for so much weight. It can also accelerate and stop more
quickly. Aluminum doesn’t rust, Ford says, and it’s more resistant to
Reyes says the company planted prototype F-150s with three
companies — in mining, construction and power — for two years without
revealing they were aluminum. The companies didn’t notice a difference.
says Ford’s customers have already shown a willingness to adopt new
technology. Forty percent of the F-Series trucks sold last year had
Ford’s more efficient EcoBoost engines, for example, which were
introduced just three years ago. And Mulally says owners trust Ford.
will still have a tough time wresting customers from the competition,
mainly Chevrolet, GMC and Ram, says Jesse Toprak, an independent auto
industry consultant in Los Angeles.
"Movement between brands in
the full-size truck segment is extremely minimal," Toprak says. "It’s
the strongest loyalty of any segment."
Still, about 20 percent of
pickup buyers traditionally are open to jumping from brand to brand
based on features or price, Toprak said. The company with the newest,
most advanced truck has the advantage in getting those customers, plus
those who are new to the market, Toprak says.
Some steel remains
on the truck. The frame beneath it is built primarily of high-strength
steel, which Ford says will make it tougher and stiffer than the current
frame. There’s also steel in the front dashboard, because Ford thought
steel was better at dampening nose from the engine.
In all, a
four-door F-150 has 660 pounds of aluminum, or nearly double the average
use of aluminum per vehicle used now, according to Drive Aluminum, an
aluminum industry Web site. If the Ford truck is a success, use of
aluminum could expand rapidly at the expense of steel.
"People are beginning to truly understand the value that aluminum can bring to the table,"
Lowery said.
is expecting some issues with the design or the manufacturing as it
makes the change, Mulally said. But the company is working hard to
"I think the attitude is, expect the unexpected and
expect to deal with it," he says. "Sometimes I think our core competency
is scrambling. That’s not unique to Ford."
Mulally, who grew up
driving an F-150 on his family’s farm in Kansas, particularly likes the
new truck’s front windows, which dip down 2 inches for better
"That’s just an unbelievable innovation. You’re
sitting up there and you need to know where you are," he says. "I think
that is absolutely a laser focus on what the customer wants and values."
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