Can an Aluminum Truck Really Be Considered ‘Ford Tough’?

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Ford’s F series truck, America’s best-selling vehicle for three decades running, has been successful largely because of its reputation for strength and durability. As the ads have said over and over, the truck is famously built “Ford Tough.” With its recent announcement of plans to swap out steel for lightweight aluminum in the body of trucks, however, Ford seems to be messing with a winning formula.

Among trucks, “steel long has been the gold standard,” in the words of industry publication Wards Auto. They don’t call Superman the “Man of Aluminum,” do they? Steel is simply deemed tougher, stronger, and more durable than aluminum. The monosyllabic word “steel” even sounds tougher than the highfalutin “aluminum.”

Nonetheless, as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others have reported, Ford hopes to sub in aluminum in the body of its F-150 truck to cut the vehicle’s weight by 700 pounds. The move actually increases Ford’s costs—aluminum is pricier than steel—but a significantly lighter truck body allows Ford to get by with a lighter engine. When all of the weight-reducing changes are factored in, the truck could see improvements in fuel economy up to 25%.

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Better mileage is the bottom line here, as Ford and other automakers struggle to meet across-the-board new federal fuel economy standards that go into effect starting in 2016. Ford’s newly designed aluminum-heavy (or aluminum-light, as it were) truck is expected to hit the marketplace in 2014. For now at least, only the F-150 will be getting the aluminum makeover; Ford’s heavier-duty trucks, such as the F-250, are sticking with steel as they don’t fall under the same mileage standards.

One Colorado car dealer told the WSJ, “There is going to be a certain percentage of the people that will bitch and complain” about the change to aluminum. “But they will ultimately get that vehicle … They may hold off for a little and keep their old ones longer. Then they will buy a new one.”

Analysts seem to agree that any initial skepticism among consumers regarding the usage of aluminum in trucks will be replaced by acceptance. “I think that in the long run, truck buyers will come to embrace the increased use of aluminum in full-size pickup trucks, although initially, you may have some of the longtime F-Series faithful balk at the prospect of a lighter and perceivably less ‘Ford Tough’ pickup,” Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book, wrote via e-mail. “Once the Ford faithful take the time to drive the new trucks, I believe they will be sold due to the decreased weight allowing for a better handling and more efficient truck in terms of fuel efficiency and power delivery.”

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The truth is there isn’t anything particularly radical or new about infusing aluminum in cars. The Audi A8 made its debut several years ago with an aluminum frame, giving it an edge in the luxury sedan category with lower weight, and the F-150 itself has had an aluminum hood since 2004. “Lots of drivers don’t know what kind of metal is in their cars,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds. “So long as the truck does what they need a truck to do, drivers won’t care about Ford’s changes.”

Krebs noted that it’s fitting that Ford, under the leadership of CEO Alan Mulally, is the first to move beyond steel in trucks: “Mr. Mulally’s background is in the airline business, where they use a lot of aluminum. It’s not surprising Ford is out in front on this.”

It’s widely expected that rivals Chrysler and GM will follow suit by incorporating aluminum and/or other lightweight materials in their trucks in the near future. “Every company has to figure out how to cut weight,” said Krebs. “It’s just a fact.”

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As for whether buyers will balk when lighter trucks hit the market, both Krebs and Gutierrez pointed out that there was originally plenty of concern that drivers wouldn’t buy a truck with a V6 engine—but that Ford, with the V6 ecoboost in the F-150 proved the skeptics wrong. According to Gutierrez:

Many truck owners were reluctant to embrace the ecoboost V6 since in their eyes, a truck isn’t a truck without a big V8. After driving it though, the smooth power delivery, increased fuel-efficiency and lighter weight have come to be valued by F-150 owners and have led to sales far surpassing Ford’s initial expectations.

Questions regarding aluminum-vs.-steel trucks will have to be answered in time. How much more expensive will aluminum-frame vehicles be? How will aluminum handle accidents compared to steel? Perhaps most importantly: Can an aluminum-frame truck truly be as tough as its best-selling, steel-based predecessor?

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Some worries should subside with the realization that all newly designed vehicles will have to meet not only fuel economy standards, but safety standards as well.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

8 comments
sgtmac54
sgtmac54

sgtjerry

February 28, 2014

I Am Sure Ford Would Say That My Steering Wheel is Just as Safe as Rubber on There Firestone Tires. That Makes Me Feel So Safe Because Ford Motor Company Would Never Lie To...

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sgtjerry

February 28, 2014

Fords New Slogan should Be, "Ford Trucks We Make Them Tough, But we won't tell you If They Will Kill You"

What gives a right the company that is aware it is murdering its own consumers because of their defects and it takes a congressional hearing for them to admit it.

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sgtjerry

February 28, 2014

yes I have three times, Ford Motor Company sent me a letter with the case number and told me to call to discuss this issue. The lady I talked to from the Ford Motor Company in Michigan told me that the case was closed and there's nothing she could do. It's truly ironic that a company as big as Ford Motor Company one address this issue right away.

This leaves me to believe that they are aware of the...

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NuYwk

February 28, 2014

Have you contacted FORD directly ?

Report violation

sgtjerry

February 28, 2014

This Is a safety hazard on Ford pickups that I think your department needs to look into. This is in regards to a steering wheel on a 2005 Ford pickup that the outer casing of the steering wheel is disintegrating and the inside core which should stay attached is coming apart. This creates two problems for the individual operating this vehicle. When the temperature rises above 90° in the vehicle the steering...

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sgtjerry

February 28, 2014

This Is a safety hazard on Ford pickups that I think your department needs to look into. This is in regards to a steering wheel on a 2005 Ford pickup that the outer casing of the steering wheel is disintegrating and the inside core which should stay attached is coming apart. This creates two problems for the individual operating this vehicle. When the temperature rises above 90° in the vehicle the steering wheel casing which is not secure to the inner frame of the steering wheel becomes extremely unsecured.This Means There are times when you're actually turning the top of the steering wheel in all you're doing is moving the outside shell of the steering wheel which is foam and disintegrating rubber. This gives the driver a false sense of direction.

Either way there is no way that a vehicle operating on the highways should have to contend with this defective situation.

This has been addressed to the Ford Motor Company by me and has been sent to the CEO of the Ford Motor Company by me. And to the board motor Company in Michigan by me. To emphasize defective the steering wheel can be I am sending you and attached video. This video was taken when the temperatures in the vehicle were 50° and as I explained to you earlier when he gets up to 90 or above it truly feels like you have a hot dog in a bun and all you're doing is moving the outside bun. Thank you for your time and consideration. My main concern here is the safety.

After contacting Ford numerous times it truly is apparent they want nothing to do with this. I remember reading something similar to this years ago in regards to the Firestone tire. They also denied any responsibility or anything wrong. We all know where that went. I just hope this is an isolated incident and not on all Ford pickup.



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30Cz4twdQzo&list=UUlnTl1kA1XxF1FReLBF_D6A


SirhcYensog
SirhcYensog

"How will aluminum handle accidents compared to steel? Perhaps most importantly: Can an aluminum-frame truck truly be as tough as its best-selling, steel-based predecessor?"

The 2015 F150 still - or rather moreso - has a steel-framed chassis at its' heart, not an aluminum one. The majority of the body panels and engines themselves are now made from aluminum, which will save an average of 400-500 pounds over most existing configurations (or at a maximum of 700 pounds with other configurations). If anything could be taken as assumption, it would be of the fact that the reduced weight of the body panels overtime would accumulate to having less stress and wear on the chassis, resulting in it lasting significantly longer. Seems like it was just a typo error on account of the author, but it can be misleading to the readers who are lead to think as such.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

Back in the 1980's when Great Brittan was fighting the Falkland Island war, they made their ships out of aluminum.  Apparently, no one ever told them that aluminum burns very well and melts at a much lower temperature than steel.  They lost several ships due to missile fire that would NOT have been lost had they been made out of steel.

Aluminum also has a much lower tensile strength than a similar volume of steel and is MUCH less durable in flexibility - something someone might want to worry about if they're actually going to use their truck off-road. (Most ford truck owners seem to just buy them because they have no testosterone of their own and want a gas-guzzling, over-sized family vehicle that they have no idea how to drive safely and even less in how to park, so few actually see off-road use.)

When all the shouting's done, after the frames are done failing in spectacular and deadly manners, the bodies are buried and the  lawsuits settled, Ford would have been better served just making steel trucks SMALLER rather than trying to make the the huge trucks lighter.

TerryKnowsMoore
TerryKnowsMoore

@Fatesrider As a female truck driver, I am driving Ford truck for safety first, crossing the country many times, I see the little cars and how they fair in a accident, no thanks. I held off buying a Ford truck for about 6 years, the design was bad, but 2011 brought in a much better looking truck, had to travel from Alaska to Texas to get a 6 ft bed, having use the long bed for many years. I wanted to trade this year, but the aluminum truck idea has me concerned, I will wait and view the accidents of these trucks before I get a newer truck. You drive what you want mister, and allow us truck lovers to drive what we want. Global warming is the biggest joke on the world and if your worried about what we fill our trucks up with , then you are a fool.

Starshiprarity
Starshiprarity

If your truck gets as hot as a ship in the heat of battle, most of your car is probably already on fire.

Aluminum is used in planes because it balances weight and strength very well against the many tugs and pulls flight puts on it. Even so, I agree that if used just like steel it will fail.

Its likely they'll be using alternative form factors to increase the strength of the aluminum (different forms can help redistribute stresses better). There will probably be a minor decrease in performance but not a deal breaker, I think.

Forrest Dickinson
Forrest Dickinson

Bikes made the switch from steel to aluminum nearly 2 decades ago, and now to carbon fiber.   In terms of frame design / weight, you can do things with aluminum that you can't do with steel and its actually a superior material in terms of bikes to steel in all cases other than in terms of the ride (less forgiving because its stiffer).   They are every bit as durable as the old steel bikes, and anyone that has ever watched extreme sports knows they can take a beating.  

SandyWest
SandyWest

@TerryKnowsMoore Same here Terry. I live in Texas and I have noticed with all the construction on the interstate systems and toll roads even the Mexican Crews are driving the F 150 and F 250.   I too drive a F 150 for the same reason you do, Terry.  I don't want my truck to have an aluminum firewall, as my 1987 had and it cracked, making it unsafe to drive. I certainly don't want the bed to made with aluminum to shake rattle and crumple like the Dodge and Chevrolet.  I have bought Fords all my life and IF I wanted a rickettey old truck I would have paid less and bought the above.  Ford, YOU NEED TO HEED THE REQUEST OF YOUR CUSTOMERS!