The composite pickup box experiment may have failed for General Motors Corp., but that doesn't mean the concept is dead.
To the contrary, Asian auto makers eagerly are pursuing the technology and appear ready to replace conventional stamped-steel cargo beds with composites in small pickups in the near future, sources say.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s next-generation Tacoma pickup, arriving in 2006, will have a composite pickup box. Sources say Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s small sport/utility truck (SUT), shown at this year's North American International Auto Show and arriving in 2005, also will have a composite box, although the company declines to confirm.
Supplier sources say Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is considering composite boxes for more than one pickup, and that Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is considering building a small pickup at its new plant near Montgomery, AL, also with a composite box.
Hyundai confirms it is considering a small pickup, but no decisions have been made.
GM was the first auto maker to produce a fullsize composite box, dubbed Pro-Tec, for its fullsize Chevy Silverado pickups. Made of urethane-based structurally reinforced reaction-injection molding (SRIM) material, the option is gone after only two years in the marketplace.
Ford Motor Co. actually was the first to offer a composite box on its Explorer Sport Trac sport/utility in 2000, with a smaller bed that measured 4 ft. (1.2 m).
Despite Pro-Tec's failure, suppliers stand by the technology for shaving 80 lbs. (36 kg) from a pickup equipped with a traditional steel bed and suggest the problem was with GM's packaging of the option in the “short-box” configuration measuring 6 ft. (1.8 m). Work trucks with a larger bed, suppliers suggest, would have been the better platform for Pro-Tec, although molding the longer beds would be more technically challenging.
GM declines to say how many Pro-Tec beds sold, but in mid-2001 only 5,000 Silverados were ordered with the feature — well short of the anticipated 50,000.
The option also was too expensive, suppliers say, priced roughly at $1,000. And GM retailers were reluctant to push Pro-Tec because conventional plastic bed liners are a high-profit dealer add-on.
Meridian Automotive Systems, which produced the Pro-Tec box, “took a bath financially” along with GM on the project, having built a new plant to support the program in Huntington, IN, says David White, Meridian's vice president-sales and marketing and chairman of the Automotive Composites Alliance trade group.
White and others in the composites sector are excited about the prospects with Asian auto makers.
“Composites have never been very big in Japan, but now we're talking with Honda and Toyota,” White says, adding that Toyota is studying the use of composites for closure panels such as doors and decklids.
Unlike on the GM trucks, the composite boxes will be standard on Toyota Tacoma and the Honda SUT, sources say. Toyota sold 154,154 Tacomas in the U.S. in 2003, up 1.4% from the prior year, according to Ward's data.
“There's a big growth market for composite boxes,” says Hugh Foran, sales manager for ThyssenKrupp Budd Co., which will manufacture a short and long composite box for the Tacoma at a new plant 12 miles (19 km) from Toyota's facility in Tijuana, Mexico. Budd will use sheet-molding composite (SMC) to produce Tacoma's box.
Toyota will finish the boxes before shipping them to the New United Motor Mfg. Inc. vehicle assembly plant in Fremont, CA. The new Tacoma launches in mid-2004 as an '05 model.
Toyota has pursued a composite box for Tacoma because tooling costs are lower ($5 million, compared with $25 million for tooling a steel box), and because additional features can be molded into the box, Foran says.