It’s not often an automotive materials story becomes big news, but reports the next-generation Ford F-150 fullsize pickup truck, expected in 2014, will be aluminum-intensive has had the rumor mill churning for months.
There has been much speculation and anxiety in the blogosphere as to whether macho pickup buyers will accept a truck that uses aluminum in place of steel and weighs hundreds of pounds less. Some F-150 loyalists worry tough new fuel-economy regulations will force engineers to build wimpy trucks that can’t haul a trailer full of cotton candy.
Ford officials aren’t talking, but all the hand-wringing is unwarranted. WardsAuto first broke the story Jan. 3, about six months before other publications put the issue into the spotlight. The current F-150 already has an aluminum hood, the next-generation is expected to have aluminum fenders, doors and perhaps some other bits, but knowledgeable sources say crucial parts such as the truck frame and bed will continue to be made from steel.
That still represents some engineering daring on Ford’s part, but there is a big difference between adding some aluminum body panels (and maybe a tailgate) to a vehicle that already has aluminum powertrain, driveline and suspension parts, and a truck that is “all-aluminum.” This distinction has been lost in much of the discussion.
Clearly, corporate average fuel economy rules requiring auto makers to almost double fuel efficiency by 2025 are creating an opportunity for lightweight materials.
Thanks to fuel and emissions rules, Roland Harings, global automotive vice president for Novelis, the world’s largest producer of aluminum automotive sheet, sees demand for his product growing in North America, Europe and Asia at a compound annual rate of 25% (in poundage) for the next five years.
Novelis and other major aluminum producers such as Alcoa are investing hundreds of millions in production capacity to meet growing demand for a wide variety of parts.
Plus, many of the old production obstacles for aluminum are being removed. Harings declines to comment on the next-generation F-150, but he says stamping and fabricating parts in high volumes no longer is the challenge it used to be. He points to aluminum doors for BMW 5-Series and 7-Series cars currently being produced at the rate of 6,000 to 7,000 units per day.
And the number of true all-aluminum vehicles featuring bodies-in-white made from the material indeed is growing. The ’13 Range Rover is the industry’s latest showcase. Claimed to be the world’s first SUV with an all-aluminum unibody structure, Range Rover says the new truck’s body is 39% lighter than the outgoing model, providing a weight savings of up to 926-lbs. (420 kg). The U.S.-spec version will be an impressive 700 lbs. (318 kg) lighter.
The new Mercedes SL also features an all-aluminum body-in-white. Aluminum industry sources promise many more all-aluminum vehicles are coming.
Earlier this year, Randall Scheps, Alcoa’s marketing director of automotive sheet tells WardsAuto that in five years, aluminum body-in-white vehicles selling 200,000 units a year are a possibility.
Aluminum clearly is poised for spectacular growth in automotive, but despite its advantages, price and volume limitations still rule it out as the primary material for the next F-150, the highest-volume vehicle sold in the U.S.
Industry sources say U.S. auto makers typically pay $2.00 per pound for aluminum, compared with $0.30 to $0.50 per pound for steel. Cost is a major concern when selling a big vehicle like a fullsize pickup that starts at just $23,000. It’s less of an issue for Range Rover. Its two current ’12 models start at $60,000 and $80,000. The Mercedes SL starts at more than $106,000.
Volumes are equally disparate. Ford sold 385,439 light-duty F-150s through August, according to WardsAuto data. The current ’12 Range Rover saw U.S. sales of 5,490 Range Rover models, plus an additional 9,949 sales of its less pricey Sport models through August. Mercedes has sold 2,628 SL roadsters so far this year.
Ford may indeed make an all-aluminum F-150 someday, but don’t expect to see one in 2014.