Ford's history, while not founded on the F-150 pickup and its predecessors, has certainly been built around it over the last 60 years. From its debut in 1948 to the present, the truck has evolved radically in design, features, and capability, but it has remained all-steel in frame and body. That's soon to change.
The next generation of the F-150 will get an aluminum body, shaving 700 pounds from its curb weight, in an effort to improve gas mileage. The 15-percent weight loss will be necessary for the truck, and the brand, to meet new fuel economy targets.
While total sales of the F-150 have been on the decline since 2004, the F-150 still constitutes 28 percent of Ford's total vehicle sales, and, as of 2011, has been the best-selling pickup for 35 consecutive years and the best selling vehicle overall for 30 years. Making a major change, like replacing the F-150's steel body with aluminum, is a big risk, but it could also pay big dividends.
The thirteenth generation of the F-150 is due in 2014, and with a typical seven to ten year production cycle, will have to carry Ford through CAFE requirements up to and perhaps beyond 2020. Accordingly, it's being designed to meet the 2020 targets from the outset, reports the Wall Street Journal, which translates to a gain of about 25 percent in gas mileage over the current F-150.
The question, for Ford and for F-150 buyers, is just how much aluminum, and where, it will be used. So far, Ford is playing its hand close to its chest, perhaps as much for purposes of competitive advantage against the likes of Ram Trucks, Chevrolet, Nissan, and Toyota, as for concerns over public reaction.
Aluminum use in the F-150 could present a number of challenges for Ford, including expense, production complexity, durability, and, of course, perception. The raw material itself is much more costly than steel, meaning that prices may go up and profit margins may go down, potentially harming both Ford's sales and profitability. Aluminum is also notoriously difficult to work with in comparison to steel, potentially increasing the cost of production further. Steel is also much more flexible than aluminum, capable of surviving deformation (dents, bumps, and scuffs) without cracking, buckling, or otherwise failing structurally.
All of these factors can influence the market's perception of the F-150, as pickup buyers, whether businesses or private individuals, won't want to see a rise in price accompanied by a perceived decrease in durability, even if it does bring with it increased gas mileage. Ford is cognizant of these challenges, and says it is designing the F-150 with durability and reliability in mind, as well as weight savings.
Ultimately, the next-generation Ford F-150 will be, at least in part, a so-called "compliance vehicle," built to meet the specifications of the law more than to accommodate buyer needs or company plans, much like some electric cars, such as the Honda Fit EV, Fiat 500 Elettrica, Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Spark EV, and the Toyota RAV4 EV.
While the "compliance car" mentality may not result in the vehicle buyers truly want, it may yield the vehicle the market--and the environment--truly needs.
(c) 2012, High Gear Media.