STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Ah, the North American International Auto Show begins this week begins this week in Detroit. At least 50 new car models will make their debuts. Ford Motors is unveiling its highly anticipated makeover of the F-150 with a body made in part of aluminum - an aluminum truck.
Recent advances have made aluminum, which is lighter than steel, of course, viable on a large scale for manufacturing.
One of our favorite correspondents, NPR's Sonari Glinton, reports on what that means for the car industry.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Before I got to the Detroit Auto Show, I wanted to get a refresher course. There was all this talk about aluminum in trucks and I wanted to find out, well, what that meant.
MARGARET WOOLDRIDGE: It's all fuel economy. So there's two ways of address fuel economy. You can either make the vehicle lighter or your can improve the power train efficiency.
GLINTON: That's Margaret Wooldridge, she's a professor in the University of Michigan's Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department. She's going to talk about the materials you can use building a car, and in this case, aluminum.
WOOLDRIDGE: So aluminum is significantly lighter, it has a lower density than steel. So this is a practice that's called lightweighting vehicles, and that's exactly what the purpose is, is to make the vehicle lighter and improve the fuel economy.
GLINTON: Not only was aluminum lighter - about a third as much - but it was about three times as expensive. Margaret Wooldridge says it was also more difficult to work with. But she says in the last few years, there's whole host of slow, incremental innovations that's made aluminum easier to use in manufacturing and new fuel economy standards added an incentive despite the expense.
WOOLDRIDGE: But now, you need to meet fuel economy regulations, and so you go after technologies that are more expensive but give you that payback in terms of fuel economy.
GLINTON: OK. So back here at the auto show, all the carmakers are scrambling to make their fleets more fuel efficient in different ways. Ford decided to make its best-selling and most important vehicle, the F-150, several hundred pounds lighter.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentleman, let's take a look at the all new F-150.
GLINTON: Ford has been experimenting with aluminum in vehicles for years. But with its best selling truck, Ford is making a clear statement by something other carmakers aren't doing on a large scale.
Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford, says the company is not going to stop with the F150.
ALAN MULALLY: I think over time we'll see more and more aluminum across our entire product line. But clearly, the real value, initially, is on the larger vehicles because you can take the most weight out. But over time, we'll see aluminum go across the whole product line. Absolutely.
GLINTON: Ford executives admit that there was a learning curve in dealing with aluminum but they promise a new truck in showrooms in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile Jake Fisher with Consumer Reports says in many ways aluminums has its advantages. But he says there are still questions to be asked before the trucks go mainstream.
JAKE FISHER: The issue, of course, is going to be crash damage. It's a better material so it's going to weather better, probably not going to rust as much, aluminum doesn't. But if you get into a wreck, it going to be interesting to see what the replacement panels are going to be. Also, if you go to a normal body shop, are they going to have the materials to work with in aluminum?
GLINTON: Fisher says cost could be an issue for customers.
FISHER: If you buy a Tesla at $90,000, you might expect that it might be expensive to buy those body panels. If you buy an F-150, which is the best-selling car in America, you might be surprised to have to pay a lot of money for a new fender.
GLINTON: But Fisher says if the gamble on the F-150 goes well, you could be making your morning commuter in an aluminum body car.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.