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Don’t Underestimate Steel

Don’t Underestimate Steel

If you spend much time with folks involved with the new aluminum-intensive Ford F-150, you’re likely to come away with a glazed, happy look in your eyes, convinced aluminum is the smartest, most environmentally friendly stuff that could ever be used to make a car or truck.

The passion is contagious. Automotive aluminum suppliers Alcoa and Novelis are talking as if it’s almost game-over for steel. And there are lots of breathless media reports that General Motors and Chrysler are scrambling to follow in Ford’s footsteps.

But sources in the steel industry – and some of Ford’s competitors – say otherwise. They argue advanced high-strength steel alloys, in combination with aluminum closures and other lightweight materials, can be used to create pickup-truck bodies that are light enough to meet all future CAFE standards and cost much less.

Steel giant ArcelorMittal has just announced a new set of advanced high-strength steel grades and fabricating processes specifically aimed at creating lightweight pickups at significantly less cost than aluminum. It would be easy to brush off this effort except steel has been very effective in defending its title as the dominant automotive material.

Decade after decade, some of the smartest engineers in the world underestimate the ability of steel to evolve and remain competitive.

At the heart of the debate is how much the new Ford F-150 weighs. We’ve all heard it’s 700 lbs. (318 kg) lighter than its beefy predecessor, but how does it compare with recently redesigned rivals, the Chevy Silverado and Chrysler Ram?

Admitting they don’t yet have complete data on the ’15 F-150, competitors estimate the new Ford will have about a 300-lb. (136-kg) advantage. That’s significant but not a game-changer for fullsize pickups that can weigh more than 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg).

Ford spokesmen disagree with this assessment, saying pickups come in a dizzying array of configurations, with different-size cabs, beds and engines; 2-wheel-drive and 4WD, plus heavy- duty versions. Ford provided WardsAuto with a list of light-duty specs that suggest the F-150 has a 400-500-lb. (181-227-kg) advantage in many configurations.

For instance, a regular-cab, 2WD F-150 with the base V-6 weighs just 4,050 lbs. (1,837 kg), 471 lbs. (214 kg) less than a similar Silverado that tips the scales at 4,521 lbs. (2,051 kg), according to GM data. The heaviest SuperCrew 4WD F-150 is about 370 lbs. (168 kg) lighter than a comparable Silverado. 

The vast number of pickup options provides fodder for argument, but the fact is the light-duty F-150 has a weight advantage over competitors, just not 700 lbs. worth.

Such an advantage does create fuel-economy and performance benefits and also improves hauling and towing capabilities, important factors to pickup buyers.

Will the anticipated success of the new F-150 cause GM, Chrysler and others to follow?

No. For one, the F-150 can afford some extra cost because it commands higher sticker prices than its competitors. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but GM and Chrysler can’t afford to compete head-to-head. Top executives at both companies have all but confirmed they will pursue a more affordable mixed-materials strategy on future pickups.

Even when pricing is less of a concern, automakers usually do not opt for mono-material strategies for vehicle bodies. The all-aluminum Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ are brilliantly engineered, but they have not forced segment leaders Mercedes and BMW to veer from the mixed materials strategy used on the S-Class and 7-Series.

In 1989, I spent six months researching and surveying engineers about the future of automotive materials in the 1990s. My conclusion: Advanced plastic composites would displace steel in structural applications by 2000. Back then, everybody was excited about composites and developing plastic-bodied cars and trucks. Ford even had plans for an all-plastic F-150. But they all flopped or ended up being canceled or redesigned with steel body panels.  

Ten years later, the president of the Aluminum Assn. declared that in 10 to 15 years "Steel will represent less than 50% of automotive structures" and likened steel proponents to optimistic buggy whip manufacturers in 1899.

History keeps repeating itself. Everyone overestimates the potential of alternative materials and underestimates the steel industry’s ability to respond.

The ’15 F-150 will be a success because it is a boldly engineered product with a fiercely loyal customer base, not because of what it’s made of.

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