The Federal Government has mandated 54.5 mpg for 2025 (fleet average) and the car companies are looking for ways to meet that challenge. Ford’s F-series trucks are not only a best seller, out-selling every other vehicle in the market since 1982, it is also one of the most profitable vehicle lines in the world. It also is included in the government’s definition of “fleet” vehicle that will be summed into the “average”. Currently the F-150 gets a 17/23 mpg rating.
When looking at ways to increase a motor vehicle’s mileage there are several approaches, but number one is to reduce weight. It has the largest impact on mileage and allows the use of smaller displacement engines and can reduce the need for heavier heavy duty drive train components such as brakes and transmissions, which also reduces weight.
Ford certainly doesn’t want to lose this money-maker and is getting creative in how it can shave a lot of weight off this popular truck. It appears that aluminum is going to factor in its design in a big way. Word is that control arms and steering knuckles will be forged aluminum, the hood and fenders, cab, doors, bed, and tailgate, will all be made with the lighter weight metal. The hope is the weight savings will be in the 700 pound range, which would be a huge reduction. The rule here is that a 10% reduction in a vehicles weight translate into about a 7% increase in mileage. The cost of manufacture also goes up with estimates of $1.50 to $2.00 per pound of weight savings. That will impact pricing and profitability.
Making car components out of aluminum is not new and over the years there has been a constant competition between steel suppliers and aluminum companies to make gains in the automotive industry’s use of their metals. As aluminum would get more attractive the steel companies would come up with lighter and stronger alloys.
Aluminum changes the manufacturing and assembly processes as well. With steel components electro magnets can be used to pick up and move components, not so with aluminum. A common approach is to use vacuum and suction cups to grasp panels, but it is more expensive and complex.
Forming shapes in steel with dies is an impressive process, but it becomes a bit tricky with aluminum sheet.
Aluminum’s characteristics are softer and springier that typical sheet steel. That means that it will want to return to its original shape even after being pressed by a large die and will tear if forced into a complex shape too quickly. Being soft, the dies and presses must be kept cleaner as small slivers of aluminum left in the press can ruin the surface finish of a hood or door.
The examples above show what GM has had experienced with aluminum, but Ford also has had experience with the metal. For a while Ford owned Jaguar, which had an aluminum version of the XJ that came out in 2003. Back in the early 1990’s Ford had a version of the Taurus that was constructed using aluminum.
Welding aluminum can be tricky and companies such as Lotus have resorted to bonding aluminum to itself rather than welding where the metal can shrink and stretch. The F-150 frames will continue to be made from steel as they found little to be gained from converting its structure to aluminum. It was found that by the time it was shaped to provide its key support role the weight savings were not there.
One of the concerns that Ford has with converting so much of the F-150’s construction to aluminum is that it will be perceived by buyers as moving away from the rugged image that the F-150 currently has. So the new F-150 is being made to look even more husky and rugged.
While I certainly admire the effort that Ford is taking in this approach my experience with aluminum skinned vehicles leads me to not feel very confident as to its applicability on a utility vehicle. Aluminum is quite susceptible to dings and dents, and since it tends to stretch it often cannot simply be pounded back into shape as sheet steel can. If the F-150 is used the way I expect it will be then I suspect this will become a sore point with owners that are used to a truck with a steel body.
The heavy duty part of the F-series (F-250 and up) are not part of the “fleet” calculations so they will retain the steel components of today’s F-series trucks.
Personally I am in favor of a return to mini-pickup trucks and having them diesel powered.