There’s widespread and justifiable concern over a dearth of great ideas, risky innovation, and progressive advances being produced by corporate America. Apps and widgets don’t have the impact of electricity, steam, or the PC. (Taco Bell’s Biscuit Taco doesn’t count.)
But right now, a storied American corporation is embarking on a huge, all-in, Cortés-burning-the-ships gamble. And it could have a significant impact on the industry that is both America’s largest manufacturing sector and its largest retailing sector: autos.
The company is Ford, which hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for its remarkable, bailout-avoiding turnaround. (Go read Bryce Hoffman’s book about it, American Icon.) And the gamble involves transforming its highly popular F-150 pickup truck into a vehicle made largely out of aluminum.
When it comes to sustainability, big car companies have been tinkering around the edges in various ways: with a small-batch all-electric car, with hybrids, by improving engines. That’s all to the good. The fleet of cars sold in August got 25.8 miles per gallon, a record. But to really move the needle on emissions and efficiency, you need to produce large numbers of gas guzzlers that rack up lots of miles more efficient. I wrote last week on how Proterra is trying to do this on a small scale with all-electric buses.
In the coming months, however, Ford is set to do it with the F-150. Month in, month out, the F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the U.S—and has been for the last three decades. In August alone, Ford sold 68,109 F-150s. It has sold nearly 500,000 so far this year. The F-150 by itself accounts for more than 4 percent of all vehicle sales.
The Big Three have been rushing to make pickups more fuel-efficient, in part to comply with incoming fuel standards, and in part to gain a competitive advantage. They’ve had success in small doses. Chrysler sells a diesel-powered Ram that gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway, and some models of the Chevrolet Silverado can get up to 24, according to EPA estimates. But those are niche offerings, accounting for only a small portion of overall sales. Ford is trying to change the game.
The idea of using greater amounts of lightweight aluminum to build cars isn’t exactly new, says Peter Friedman, the self-described “aluminum guy” who manages the manufacturing research department at Ford’s innovation center. Several years ago, as the company looked ahead to how it could keep improving its pickups, it became apparent that making the vehicles lighter was the best option—and the best way to make them lighter would be to swap out steel for aluminum wherever possible.
Ford had used aluminum—which is about one-third as dense as steel—in prototypes, and had owned Jaguar back when it made an aluminum-based model. But switching over entirely would be a long process. There’s plenty of bauxite, the raw material from which aluminum is derived, but the supply capacity to produce huge volumes of automotive aluminum simply didn’t exist in 2010. “The other big part is the changes to our production system,” Friedman says. “We have 100 years or more of making steel vehicles: stamping, framing line, welding a body structure together. Many of these processes had to change.”
The 2015 F-150, the result of these efforts, goes on sale later this year. It will look similar to previous year’s models, only much lighter. The frame is still steel, but the box (the cab, the front end, the bay) is almost all aluminum. That shift alone saves about 450 pounds in weight. Ford is compensating for aluminum’s lower strength by making the panels thicker.* But there’s more to the story. If the body weighs less, then everything else—the springs, the frame, the engine—can weigh less. The frame, for example, uses 65 fewer pounds of steel. Thanks to this compounding effect, the 2015 F-150 will weigh some 700 pounds less than prior models. (The 2014 version weighs about 5,000 pounds.)
Lower weight translates into higher fuel efficiency: A rule of thumb holds that a 10 percent reduction in weight leads to a 3 percent increase in fuel economy, assuming nothing else changes. But there are bigger gains to be had. Thanks to the lower weight, these trucks can generate a higher level of pulling power with a smaller, more efficient engine. In the past few years, Ford has already integrated its EcoBoost engine (which was funded in part by a $5.9 billion Department of Energy loan) into the F-150. In August about 45 percent of the F-150s sold had 3.5-liter EcoBoost engines. For 2015, Ford will offer as an option a more efficient 2.7-liter EcoBoost with start-stop technology, which shuts off the engine while in neutral.
Combined, the materials and the smaller engines can make a big difference. Ford isn’t making concrete promises about mileage yet, and the EPA has yet to weigh in. But analysts are projecting that the F-150 could get up to 27 or 28 miles per gallon on the highway, a significant increase from the 21 or 22 miles per gallon that 2014 F-150s get.
Beyond the prospect of a huge increase in gas mileage, several things are noteworthy about this effort. First, these are work vehicles. And Ford is promising that the aluminum pickups will be just as tough, durable, and able to pull loads as the steel-based ones they’re replacing, all without corroding or rusting.
Second, unlike hybrids or the Tesla, the F-150 isn’t a premium product aimed at the high end of the market. The basic F-150 XL will have a base price of $25,420 in 2015, only $395 more than the 2014 version, or an increase of just 1.6 percent. The 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine costs an extra $495.
Third, beyond avoiding the use of millions of gallons of gasoline, an aluminum pickup truck can make other meaningful contributions to sustainability. Compared with steel, aluminum can more easily be recycled and reused.
Fourth, there’s the question of scale. Ford has chosen to go aluminum on all versions of its highest-selling product, which is made at the River Rouge plant in Michigan and a second plant in Kansas City. This is not a test. “We have stopped production of the steel vehicle at the Rouge, and won’t make it again,” Friedman says.
It’s difficult to think of a moment when a company as large as Ford made as significant a shift with a product that accounts for such a significant chunk of its sales. There could be quality problems. Consumers may reject them. It could be an expensive flop. But if the aluminum F-150 works and becomes the new standard, it could also be another Model T: a bold, high-risk innovation that the rest of Detroit will try to copy.
*Correction, Sept. 19, 2014: This article originally misstated that Ford is making the aluminum panels on its F-150s thicker than the steel panels they are replacing because aluminum is less dense than steel. It is because aluminum is less strong than steel. (Return.)