Ford’s Bold Move

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At some point—and that point isn’t going to happen for a while—the discussion of the use of aluminum for the body of the 2015 Ford F-150 is going to end.

This is something that is going to continue to resonate throughout the auto industry for some time to come.

And with good reason. Ford points out that the new model is up to 700-lb. lighter than its 2014 models. In an industry that chases grams, that is a HUGE weight save. (In case you’re wondering, there are 317,515 grams in 700 lb.)

Ford has been pursuing what it calls a “Blueprint for Sustainability” since 2007. Part of that plan is to reduce vehicle mass. Another is to deploy more fuel-efficient engines.

The first is obvious. Toward addressing the second: Ford has developed its “EcoBoost” engine lineup, which is essentially an approach that allows buyers to go for a class-smaller engine (e.g., a six rather than an eight) without a performance sacrifice and with a likely fuel improvement to boot.

It started offering a 3.5-liter EcoBoost for its F-150 back in 2011, which seemed, well, like folly. “Real” truckers who drive full-size pickups have V8s under their hoods, not sixes—don’t they?

Yet Ford discovered that there was significant demand for the 3.5-liter EcoBoosts. On the order of more than 600,000 of them.

So it should come as little surprise that for the 2015 F-150 they are offering two EcoBoosts (2.7-liter and 3.5-liter) as well as two non-EcoBoost engines.

From the point of view of miles per gallon, Ford calculates that a 2015 F-150 4x2 with a 2.7-liter EcoBoost, which is rated at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 mpg combined, is five to 29% “better than current F-150 models, depending on engine and driveline configuration on the combined cycle.”

But, of course, not everyone is going to opt for an EcoBoost. Those who are running the numbers show that competitors like the Ram 1500 with a 3.6-liter V6 have the same estimated fuel economy numbers (combined) as the non-EcoBoost 3.5-liter Ford engine—yet the Ram has 305 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. And the Chevy Silverado with a 5.3-liter V8 actually gets better fuel efficiency than an F-150 with a 5.0-liter V8: 16/23/19 vs. 15/22/18.

But light weight isn’t just about miles per gallon. In the case of the Ram 1500 comparison, there is a 10-lb. payload advantage for the F-150. In the case of the Silverado comparison, the maximum payload for the Chevy is 2,260 lb., and it is 3,300 lb. for the Ford. The basic notion is the more weight you can take out of the vehicle itself, the more weight you can put into the vehicle itself.

(The numbers can be examined in many ways, with each OEM winning in certain categories, which is an indication that there is a whole lot of engineering going on vis-à-vis bodies, structures, and powertrains.)

Meanwhile, the people who are in the ferrous side of the world are a bit taken aback at all of the play that the aluminum F-150 is receiving, despite the fact that Ford itself regularly points out that it uses a high-strength steel frame for the truck.

WorldAutoSteel (worldautosteel.org), which is a subset of the World Steel Association, has performed studies on “total life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” for vehicles, including light trucks. According to that outfit’s studies, a pickup or an SUV made with advanced high strength steel (AHSS) can be environmentally advantageous. According to Russell Balzer, technical director of WorldAutoSteel, “On a life cycle basis, the AHSS-intensive vehicles produce fewer emissions than the aluminum-intensive one.”

The issue is life cycle, not just driving around. While there is acknowledgement of apparently trivial fuel efficiency improvements for the aluminum-intensive vehicle (“owners of an aluminum-intensive light-duty truck can expect to visit the fuel station four times less over the entire life of the vehicle (assuming a 26-gallon tank and 12-year lifetime),” there is thoroughgoing damnation when it comes to that life cycle. Balzer: “The primary production of steel, including AHSS, produces seven to 20 times fewer emissions than other materials such as aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.”

All of this is great for the industry, and good for the environment, too. First of all, look at the number of pickups sold by Ford, GM and FiatChrysler in the U.S. through October 2014—F-Series: 620,447; GM (Silverado and Sierra) 594,972; Ram: 359,702—you see that the total is 1,575,121 units. (Yes, there are some heavy-duty models in this mix, but still . . .) That is a greater number of trucks sold in the first 10 months of 2014 than American Honda sold of EVERYTHING in 2013—1,525,312—and Honda’s sales were up by 7.2%, 
according to Autodata (motorintelligence.com). It is more than all of Nissan North America in 2013 (1,248,420). And with the exceptions of GM, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota, all the other OEMs are in six figures.

That is a huge number of trucks. A tremendous amount of sheet metal. Trucks are vitally important, not only to those who use them, but for those who supply the materials and equipment that go into making them. And they are important from the point of view of their environ-mental impacts, given the vast number of them, be the impact occurring over the lifecycle of the vehicle or during the use phase.

Although every OEM is working to make vehicles that have higher levels of sustainability, vehicles that are lighter, vehicles that are more efficient, Ford needs to get significant credit for making the conversation more public than it otherwise would have been had they not made the bold move with the 2015 F-150.