NAIAS 2016: Ford Motor Co. launches aluminum F-150 Raptor

With Ford building its North American pickup trucks with aluminium and General Motors and Dodge sticking with steel, does this mean there is a breakthrough coming in the automotive industry? Or is it good marketing?

'It's about being the strongest, toughest, most capable truck' Ford engineer says

The 2017 F-150 Raptor sits on display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich. (Dale Molnar / CBC)

Ford Motor Co. announced at the 2016 Detroit auto show that it's adding the off-roading edition of the F-150 pickup truck — the F-150 Raptor — to its stable of aluminum-bodied pickups.

That means all of Ford's North American pickups will be built with steel frames and aluminum bodies, something that, until two years ago, was reserved for sports cars.

With General Motors and Dodge both sticking with steel, is Ford's shift a marketing gimmick or a genuine breakthrough in automotive technology?

Peter Frise is a mechanical engineer and the scientific director at AUTO21, an automotive research think-tank at the University of Windsor. He said the great advantage of aluminum is its relatively light weight, but it's difficult to use in a mass produced setting.

The search to get more out of a truck

"Cars have been made with aluminum parts for many years, decades," Frise explained. "What Ford managed to do is find a way to make a large portion of a mass-marketed vehicle out of aluminum. They make about 800,000 F-150s a year. It's not a low-production, high-cost sports car or race car; it's a mass-market vehicle."

The F-series pickup is the engine behind Ford's sales. The company claims it's been the best-selling pickup in Canada for 50 years.

More than 780,000 F-series trucks were sold in the U.S. last year, meaning that about one in every three Ford vehicles sold in the U.S. was an F-series pickup in 2015.

Frise said the reason the company switched to aluminum bodies was to meet tougher North American, government-mandated fuel economy standards coming by 2025.

"To burn less fuel, a vehicle needs a lot of new technologies," he said. "One of them is that it must be lighter."

Ford reports the F-150 shed about 350 kg — about 770 pounds — during the switch from steel bodies to aluminum.

"We asked people what they would sacrifice for getting better fuel economy and they told us they'd give up nothing for that," explained Jerry Farrell, the engineer responsible for the F-150 program.

"It's about more than aluminum, it's about being the strongest, toughest, most capable truck," he said. "Aluminum made us lighter and more durable without sacrificing anything,"

General Motors sees things differently. With 940,000 pickups sold in the United States last year, pickups are as important to GM as they are for Ford.

General Motors has doubled down on steel frames and bodies. It directly calls out aluminum as less-durable and tougher to repair than steel in its advertising, even though it uses aluminum panels in vehicle hoods.  

The 2017 Chevy Silverado sits on display at the auto show in Detroit. GM is sticking with a steel frame and steel body for its pickups. (Alex Brockman / CBC)

Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesperson focusing on the Chevy Silverado, called steel "the best material out there."

He said customers do not want aluminum bodies and that better fuel efficiency can be reached in different ways.

"It's wonderful to get accolades from tech blogs and journalists," Wilkinson said. "But in the end, the customer who puts down a payment, trades in their old vehicle and drives away with a new vehicle, that's really what makes or breaks any automaker."

Aluminum is a more expensive metal, but Ford insists it hasn't added much — if anything — to the actual retail price of the pickup.

Ford quotes its base price for the 2016 F-150 as $25,299 and Chevy's 2016 Silverado is $26,895.

In fact, Brave Controls of Windsor, Ont., developed technology that allows Ford to stamp the aluminum parts for its aluminum-body F-150 more cheaply.

Without Brave's software development, Ford would have had to change all its equipment at its stamping plant in New York State, at a cost of $30 million. Instead, Brave tweaked the existed equipment for a total cost of $1 million.

'It's very masculine' 

With these two clear options available to consumers, marketing their positions is critical. Advertising for both Ford and GM not only touts their products, but calls out their rival.

In advertising for the F-150, a voice on the screen touts "military-grade aluminum" and tells customers, "This is the F-150. Every other truck is history."

GM's pitchman, a former NFL lineman, watches a Ford crash test and says, "I guess that's why they don't call [Superman] the man of aluminum"

Vincent Georgie, a marketing professor at the University of Windsor, said there's an effort to divide truck owners into clans. He watched a selection of four advertisements from both companies for CBC News and said he noticed distinct differences.

He said GM appears to be appealing to brute strength, toughness and durability. Ford is selling to a customer who still has those attributes and has a bit of a scientific streak.

"They're appealing to fundamentally relatively archaic stereotypes, the stereotypical male audience," Georgie explained. "They're basing it on strength, toughness and bears in cages. They're really bringing it down to the lowest common denominator."   

"It's very masculine," Georgie said. "It's for the men looking to purchase these types of vehicles who aren't looking for it to haul lumber ... it's for the suburban man who just wants to drive a big truck for their blue collar jobs."

'They can't just keep making the same stuff' 

Despite this media battle, both Ford and GM agree aluminum is just one piece of a broader shift to build lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles.

Frise, who researches new technology in an industry where the groundbreaking becomes the routine within a matter of years, said the entire automotive supply chain needs to adapt to survive, meaning aluminum bodies may be here to stay.

"They can't just keep making the same stuff," he said. "They'll have to adopt new technologies, new design methods … there will be big changes."


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