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Ford looks to aluminum to slash weight of pickups

Duane A. Laverty / AP file

Ford CEO Alan Mulally shows off the 2013 Ford F-150 pickup truck. Ford is likely to use more aluminum and less steel in future models in a bid to trim hundreds of pounds and increase fuel efficiency.

 Pickup truck buyers are a stubborn lot, or so goes the conventional wisdom. What matters is payload and towing capacity; all else be damned. 

But recent trends suggest that’s not necessarily the case. The latest generation of full-size trucks now offer the sort of high-tech, high-touch features you might expect in a luxury car. And, perhaps most shockingly, Ford Motor Co. is now selling more than half of its F-Series pickups equipped with V-6s, rather than the classic, heavy-hauling V-8.

But the Detroit automaker could take things are big step further when it launches the next generation of what has been, for more than a quarter-century, America’s best-selling automotive line. The upcoming remake of the F-Series will reportedly make a major shift away from steel to aluminum in a bid to shave as much as 700 pounds off the big truck’s hefty girth.

Fuel economy has become an increasingly significant factor in the buying process for truck buyers, and Ford’s decision to offer two different six-cylinder packages for the F-Series has helped it shore up its lead in the full-size pickup segment even as it faces tough competition from both domestic and Japanese alternatives. 

But the F-Series will arguably be even more hard-pressed to meet tough new mileage standards set to go into effect in 2016, with an even more stringent set of rules being finalized for 2025. Getting there will require a mix of solutions, industry analysts contend, not just a downsized engine lineup.

Weight has been a traditional challenge for the auto industry, all the more so as manufacturers have been forced to add mass and content to their vehicles — both to meet tightened safety standards and to deliver consumers the added features they expect, year after year.

But Ford is determined to not only meet those demands and still put its products on a serious diet. In a conversation with TheDetroitBureau.com before his recent retirement, Ford’s global product czar Derrick Kuzak said, “In the midterm, from now to 2017 or 2018, we’ll remove anywhere from 250 to 700 pounds depending on the vehicle.”

The latter figure is the apparent target for the F-Series, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. However, Ford spokesman Mike Levine insisted it is “premature” to discuss specific targets for the next F-Series, which isn’t scheduled to come to market until the summer of 2014 as a 2015 model.

But insiders say that there is little doubt Ford is looking to slash the mass of the truck.

Aluminum is becoming one of the materials of choice for industry designers and engineers. It is significantly lighter than steel and generally stronger, pound-per-pound than even the most advanced steel alloys.

It is already gaining ground on assembly lines around the world, in use on any number of vehicles, whether as trunk lids on some of Ford’s Lincoln models to the entire platform and body of the latest Jaguar luxury cars, including the flagship XJ sedan.

According to a report by consulting firm Ducker Worldwide, the average 2012 vehicle was expected to contain 343 pounds of aluminum, up from 327 pounds as recently as 2009. And the lightweight metal was expected to double its share of the average light vehicle model mix, to 16 percent, between 2008 and 2025.

Over the same period, Ducker forecast, the average light vehicle is expected to trim its weight by 408 pounds despite new regulatory requirements and consumer demands.

But despite its weight advantages aluminum is no panacea, experts warn. The material is substantially more expensive than traditional steels and even fares negatively when compared with the most exotic ultra-high-strength steels, such as those used to help shave weight in the new Cadillac ATS compact luxury sedan.

Aluminum is also significantly more energy-intensive, both in the smelting of the raw metal and in the automotive assembly process — though energy demands drop sharply when manufacturers work with recycled metal.

And aluminum is getting plenty of competition.  BMW, for one, is investing heavily in the development of an even lighter and stronger exotic, carbon fiber. Until now, that has been a material limited for use in Formula One race cars and exotic street vehicles like the Lamborghini Aventador, but the German automaker plans to make extensive use of carbon fiber on its new i3 and i8 battery cars and believes it can eventually bring costs down enough to find uses on more mainstream offerings like the popular 3-Series.

Then there’s steel. The familiar metal has proved unexpectedly resilient, new alloys yielding markedly greater strength even as they get lighter. 

“With new fuel economy and emissions regulations, it is necessary and appropriate that automakers evaluate different automotive designs,” said Thomas J. Gibson, president of the trade group the American Iron and Steel Institute. “And our history has shown the trial of alternative materials typically result in parts being re-evaluated and returned to steel due to cost, performance or both.”

But most experts believe that while steel won’t go away, it simply won’t be able to make the massive reductions in mass needed to meet tomorrow’s tough mileage rules — or consumer demand — at least not entirely.

So, if Ford does, indeed, come in with a light, aluminum-intensive version of the next F-Series pickup, it could blaze the path for the rest of the industry in moving the lightweight metal into the mainstream.