Autos

Don’t Count Ford’s Aluminum Chickens Just Yet, Critics Say

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The decision by Ford (NYSE:F) to swap out steel for high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy in the body of its new F-150 pickup is without a doubt one of the most highly anticipated decisions that will play out in the auto industry this year. While the use of aluminum for car bodies isn’t a new idea, per se, it’s the first time that such a strategy will be applied to a vehicle of such scale.

The move is also expected to give Ford’s leading vehicle — the best-selling vehicle in the United States — a sharper competitive edge in an industry that has seen a tremendous heating up of the competition in recent years. The Ram 1500, Ford F-150, and Chevrolet Silverado are three of most high-volume vehicles in America, and with Chevy’s truck renewed for 2014 and a so far industry-exclusive diesel engine available in the Ram, Ford is the odd one out without a meaningful change for this model year — but that will change later, when the 2015 model is introduced.

But a story from WardsAuto is questioning whether the decision to switch to aluminum will end up being a meaningful one for Ford. While it will be the first aluminum-bodied truck on the market, Ford Trucks spokesman Mike Levine told the publication that it wasn’t about gaining a first-mover advantage. Instead, it’s about offering the most advanced truck on the market, he said.

“We used high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy throughout the body, which improves dent and ding resistance while saving as much as 700 [pounds], giving our customers improved towing, improved payload and better fuel efficiency,” Levine told WardsAuto.

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“This is about giving customers a tougher, more capable F-150 independent of the materials,” Levine added.

While Levine is naturally confident, a few people are expressing concerns over the scale of the gamble that Ford is taking with its immense project. “It’s a big roll of the dice,” David Cole, chairman of AutoHarvest and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, told Wards. “Whether it’s an advantage or not is yet to be determined.”

From a performance point of view, the decision makes sense on paper. Weight savings will not only help boost fuel economy but will also help handling and make the truck more power-efficient. The weight it’s no longer carrying on its body can be translated into better towing ratings, at least in theory. However, the use of aluminum has its drawbacks — it’s more expensive than steel, so it’s possible that the F-150 will cost more than its predecessor. Ford has yet to reveal its pricing ladder for the new truck.

“The tradeoff from the consumer perspective is, ‘What is it going to save me vs. what’s it going to cost me?’” Cole said to WardsAuto. “That’s an important part of the discussion.” Fuel savings will likely factor heavily into the consumer mindsets when cross-shopping; currently, that race is being won by Ram’s 28-mile-per-gallon highway 1500 EcoDiesel.

And while it appears that Ford is establishing itself as a cornerstone of the aluminum movement, Ducker Worldwide project consultant Richard Schultz told Wards that that isn’t so much the case. Fellow Michigan resident General Motors (NYSE:GM) is already the top automotive consumer of aluminum, and while “the material is plentiful, [it’s] important for automakers to inform aluminum producers years in advance of a program of the need for heat-treated sheet aluminum,” Schultz said, per Wards.

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But while Ford has been perfecting its aluminum construction, steel has been making strides, as well — it’s now lighter, easier to sculpt, and stronger than it ever has been, and it’s likely that some automakers will continue to use steel over aluminum despite Ford’s ventures into new territories.

“If you look at steels out there years ago, you couldn’t lightweight; they weren’t strong enough and you couldn’t (form) the shapes needed,” Craig Parsons, automotive president at NanoSteel, told WardsAuto in an interview. “Aluminum has come a long way, as well, but I think technologies like nanosteel are going to give automakers alternatives to aluminum so they can do light-weighting with better geometries and thinner materials.”

Lastly, there’s the argument that aluminum can’t hold up to the rugged nature of the F-150 and isn’t strong enough to cope with the bumps and bruises that pickups are wont to endure. Richard Schleps, of Alcoa Inc., said that these concerns are unfounded.

“The safety argument is an old take,” he said to WardsAuto. “The best indicator of safety is the size of the vehicle and crush space, and the best way to maintain space and fuel economy is aluminum.”

Cole, meanwhile, maintained to the publication that switching to an aluminum-based body in its highest-volume product is one the most significant automotive developments in decades. “It’s a really big deal,” he said. “It potentially redefines the body of a vehicle.”