Introducing the Ford F-150: Aluminum but a Whole Lot More

While Ford has reset the stakes in the light-duty pickup market with the aluminum-intensive F-150, that’s not the whole story of what they’ve done to this new generation of America’s best-selling vehicle.

Matt O’Leary, Ford Vehicle Line Director—North America Trucks, SUVs and Commercial Vehicle, says that when work was undertaken for the development of the 2015 F-150 some four-and-a-half years ago, they looked at an array of materials strategies. Which is to say, conceivably, the vehicle, which is not only the first all-aluminum light-duty pickup in history, but probably the only pickup truck ever about which people know and talk about the material that’s used to build it, could have been steel. Or it could have been less aluminum.

But O’Leary goes on to explain that one of the drivers for the use of aluminum was Ford’s commitment to improving vehicle performance through light weighting. They had done considerable work on powertrain, such as the development of the direct-injected, turbocharged EcoBoost engine, which went into production in 2009. So the com-pany had to do something more. Which led to an investigation of aluminum.

According to Pete Reyes, 2015 F-150 chief engineer, much of the work that had been done on developing the aluminum-intensive Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles (remember: Ford owned the two companies through the 2000s, until 2008) had been performed in Dearborn, so there were still people on staff who had deep familiarity with the material, to say nothing of continued friendships and associations with the people at Jaguar Land Rover, who continue to work with the nonferrous material.

While some people wonder about the viability of using aluminum in a truck application (although Ford people are quick to point out that aluminum is used for Class 8 trucks—to say nothing of Bradley fighting vehicles), Reyes said that when he was assigned to the program, his concern was with formability. He wasn’t concerned with durability, especially as, he says, they were developing the truck using a 6000 alloy rather than the 5000 alloy material that is more typically used for automotive use.

So they proceeded. And they came up with clever ways to determine how the trucks would stand up to abuse. They determined who would be their most-demanding customers—the so-called 1% who put their trucks to the most extreme tests—and made trucks that appeared to be 2014 vehicles and let three of these customers put the trucks to work. The differ-ence between the normal truck and the six that they built for this program was the use of aluminum cargo boxes in place of the then-conventional steel. 

Barrick Gold Corp., in Elko, NV, used the trucks for traveling into mine pits and elsewhere. Walsh Construction of Holtwood, PA, and Birmingham, AL, used one at a hydroelectric dam and another at a highway interchange con-struction site. A regional utility company in North Carolina used one to drive up steep mountain roads (for purposes of meter reading) and another to drive on overgrown paths (for pole and line maintenance).

These six trucks, over a two-year period, had more than 300,000 miles on them. And according to Colleen Hoffman, who worked on the structure of the vehicle, they made necessary modifications to the vehicle, such as increasing the gauge of the aluminum in the bed to handle the kind of real-world use that the truck would experience.

In addition to which, Ford engi-neers, in collaboration with Foutz Motorsports, entered a “2014 F-150” in the 2013 Baja 1000. It was actually a disguised 2015 truck, with the aluminum panels, new steel frame, and all-new 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6. The truck finished the race without incident.

All in, they reckon that they’ve tested the truck for an equivalent (real and simulated) for more than 10-million miles.

“Durability is the essence of the brand promise,” says Doug Scott, Ford group truck marketing manager. “Built Ford Tough” is more than a slogan.

So about the light weighting. It isn’t simply about the use of aluminum alloys like 6600 aluminum. It is also the use of high-strength steel for the frame. This isn’t new, like the aluminum. Ford has been using the steel for the F-150 frame. But what is different for 2015 is the quantity of the high-strength steel. In the 2015 model it is 77% high-strength steel. In the previous model it was 23%. Not only does this contribute to a stronger frame, one that is structurally more rigid, but an additional benefit is a weight reduction: approximately 60 lb. – and that’s with adding an additional cross member to the frame, up to eight.

Other things that were done to the frame include designing the front horns with almost a cross-shaped cross section so that there are 12-corners rather than four, thereby helping improve crash-energy management. They are using tailor-rolled blanks for the kick-up portion near the rear, providing additional gauge only where needed.

To assure that there isn’t galvanic corrosion between the steel frame and the aluminum cab and box, they’ve made extensive use of both body mount spacers as well as chemical dip treatment (e-coat) of the metals.

In the Ford presentation of the light weighting of the vehicle, it  has reduced the weight by “up to 700 pounds.”

While looking at a series of data points that the company has put on a spreadsheet, it is clear that in some cases, the amount of weight saved, on as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as can be made (i.e., cab configura-tion and engine; there are two carryover engines: a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 and a 5.0-liter V8; the six-speed automatic transmission is also a carryover), is in excess of 700 lb.

While there are fuel efficiency benefits that are derived from the light weighting of the vehicle, it is also notable that the ride and handling of the vehicle are significantly improved, as the 2015 F-150 is discernably more maneuverable than its predecessor. As light-duty pickup interiors have become more “car-like” over the past few years, with the addition of a multitude of amenities, in the case of the 2015 F-150, the vehicle, which uses rack-and-pinion electric power-assisted steering, is almost car-like in terms of doing things like pulling it into parking spaces or even passing at speed on a highway. Which is to say that it isn’t all about the miles-per-gallon.

Although there is considerable attention to the structure of the F-150, there are several other notable changes to the truck, from the headlamps to the trailer hitch in the rear.

The truck is available with LED headlamps, which the company developed along with suppliers OSRAM and Flex-N-Gate. The LED headlamps use 63% less energy than halogen bulbs. According to Ford, the lamps (which are based on semicon-ductor chips rather than on bulbs) last more than five times as conventional lights. To achieve efficiency with the LED technology, they’ve created a housing for the semiconductor that has 16 precision optical surfaces and 80 facets on the lens face so that a single chip per lamp is all that is required. (Because the LED is more expen-sive than a bulb, they undertook extensive testing for the 11-lb. headlamp unit, subjecting it to environmental extremes and shooting projectiles at it.)

There is available LED lighting on the sideview mirrors that operate at speeds up to 5 mph. There is available LED lighting around back.

Speaking of the back, they are offering a remote tailgate that can be locked, unlocked and released with the key fob. They have engineered what they’re labeling “BoxLink,” which is a series of metal brackets and cleats that can be reconfigured as needed to secure things in 
the bed. The number of tie downs has been increased to eight from four. (Says Ford’s Alana Strager: “This is why people buy a pickup truck: so they can carry cargo.) There is a ramp system that is securely fitted to the tailgate panel so that ATVs, motorcycles and mowers can be readily loaded/unloaded.

The truck offers a 360° camera view (cameras are fitted to the front, the side mirrors and the tailgate) that not only facilitates things like parking, but through the use of the rear camera, there is a trailer hitch assist capability for lining up the rear of the vehicle 
without the need of an additional person or climbing out of the truck to check the relative position.

There is a redesigned steering wheel that is not only thicker in diameter. The front seats are available with a massaging function. Yes, this is more than just a truck that can work. (Although it should be noted that the truck with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost can tow up to 12,200 lb. and the version with a 5.0-liter can handle 3,300 lb. of payload).

One of the characteristics of the redesigned interior, the instrument panel in particular, is that it appears to be much more upscale. This is predicated in large part by the use of brighter trim elements, such as chromed plastic surrounds for the HVAC vents. One of the concerns during the development was with the amount of reflection off of these shinier surfaces. The designers and engineers wanted to make sure that what looked good from an aesthetic standpoint wouldn’t have negative conse-quences from an ergonomic standpoint. So analyses were run on the reflective surfaces, with the result that there were such things as chamfering edges, element minimization or complete removal of the reflective sources on the IP.

As mentioned, under the hood there are four available engines:

•    A normally aspirated 3.5-liter VC that produces 283 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque.
•    A 2.7-liter turbocharged EcoBoost V6 that produces 
325 hp and 375 lb-ft of toque
•    A 5.0-liter V8 that produces 385 hp and 387 lb-ft of torque
•    A 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 that produces 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque

The 2.7-liter engine is all-new. While the other engines are all-aluminum, the 2.7 features a compacted graphite iron (CGI) block and aluminum head. This is the first gasoline engine that Ford has offered in the U.S. with the CGI block; the Ford 6.7-liter PowerStroke turbodiesel V8 (400 hp @ 2,800 rpm; 800 lb-ft of torque @ 1,600 rpm) available 
in the F-Series SuperDuty also has a CGI block and aluminum head.

According to Steve Gill, chief engineer, Global Engine Engineering, Powertrain Product Development, the CGI block is used because they wanted to make the block as compact as possible, which means that the material has to be sufficiently strong so that the distance between bores can be minimized. While the real estate under the hood of the 2015 F-150 isn’t an issue as regards the size (after all, there is that 5.0-liter V8 engine, as well), Gill points out that there will be future applications of the 2.7 in other vehicles where the orientation won’t be longitudinal as it is in the truck. For example, the 2015 Edge crossover will offer the 2.7-liter engine.

There are several interesting features of the 2.7-liter engine. For example, this is their first use of fracture split main bearing caps; the components are laser scribed, then fractured so that when they are bolted together, there is a precise fit. (This approach has been used on connecting rods.) There are cooling jets below the pistons to keep operating temperatures lower; the con roads have an offset I-beam orientation to provide strength while reducing 
weight. There is a composite air intake manifold. The cylinder heads featured water-cooled integrated exhaust manifolds, which makes them closer to the turbo system.

The 2.7-liter engine comes standard with automatic start-stop technology. While Ford has offered this technology on its hybrids and on its gasoline-powered Fusion, this is the first truck application. As such, there is a modification to the control logic for the start-stop system: it is automatically disengaged when the truck is in four-wheel drive and when towing. After all, that’s when you want all of that torque ready to go.

The F-Series has been the best-selling truck in the U.S. for 37 years and the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 32 years running. It is being produced in two plants: the Dearborn Truck Plant (a.k.a., “The Rouge”) in Dearborn, Michigan, and the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri. Both plants have under-gone extensive improvements 
and modifications and have added staff in order to handle the demand for what Ford is confident will result in 38- and 33-year records.