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4:31 pm
Mon January 13, 2014

Ford's New F-150 May Pave The Way For More Aluminum Cars

Originally published on Mon January 13, 2014 7:53 pm

The North American International Auto show begins this week in Detroit, a preview of the most important car technology on the horizon. One of the stars of the show this year is the Ford F-150, a truck that's been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades. And it's by far Ford's most important model.

On Monday, the company unveiled a radically new more fuel-efficient redesign of the F-150 — featuring a lighter-weight aluminum body.

Aluminum's Advantages

At the Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit, a few thousand people are waiting for the unveiling of the F-150. The event holds in it the breathless anticipation of a heavyweight championship fight.

Jack Nerad, a vice president at Kelley Blue Book, says this has a big impact on Ford's future. "This is probably the biggest deal that they have. So they want to introduce it in a big way," he says.

A commercial for the truck starts playing in the arena, and then — "Ladies and gentlemen," an announcer says, "this is the new Ford F-150, the toughest, smartest, most capable F-150 ever."

The new truck doesn't look that unusual. What makes this F-150 different is its construction: Much of the body is made of aluminum, which weighs less than steel. That means the truck will be as much as 700 pounds lighter and much more fuel efficient.

"This is definitely a tremendous technical innovation in the automobile industry," says Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford, who was previously an executive at Boeing. "One of the things that gives me a lot of confidence, personally, is that the aluminum alloys that we're using are very similar to what we use in commercial airplanes, and they have proven their toughness and their durability."

Jake Fisher, head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, says aluminum is more expensive and harder to handle, but it has some real advantages. Apart from being lighter, it also weathers better.

Fisher says the new F-150, if successful, could pave the way for more vehicles having aluminum body parts.

"If they change the atmosphere out there so the body shops are ready to paint aluminum and work with aluminum, maybe your next Hyundai might be an aluminum body too," he says.

Ford's Future

Each of the Detroit automakers has gotten better at making smaller cars, but they're still reliant on trucks. The average truck on the road is more than 10 years old.

So there's a lot of pent-up demand to replace them. Add that to a recovering housing sector, and you've got a potent mix for the future.

At Ford, the F-150 — just one truck — is responsible for about a quarter of Ford's sales and even more of its profits.

"When you talk about the F-150, you're talking about the future of Ford Motor Company, so what's at stake is Ford Motor Company," says Nerad at Kelley Blue Book. "This is a big, big deal in terms of corporate profits. And if they lose significant market share in this segment, they're losing significant profitability."

If Ford's gamble doesn't pay off, truck buyers still have plenty of options. At this auto show, the Chevy Silverado nabbed the title of truck of the year. Last year, that award went to Chrysler Group's Dodge Ram 1500.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The North American International Auto show begins this week in Detroit, previewing the most exciting car technology on the horizon. One of the biggest stars at this year's show: the Ford F-150. The truck been the best selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades and it's by far Ford's most important. This latest reinvention of the vehicle is radically more fuel-efficient but the body of the new F-150 is made partially out of aluminum, making the truck several hundred pounds lighter.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's early on Monday morning and I'm in the Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit waiting for the unveil of the Ford F-150. And as Howard Cosell would say: This event holds in it the breathless anticipation of a heavyweight championship fight.

I'm here with Jack Nerad who is with Kelley Blue Book. Is the hype worth it?

JACK NERAD: I think it is worth it. And I think you're exactly right in describing it as the heavyweight championship fight. This is a big deal. This is probably the biggest deal that they have so they want to introduce it in a big way. And they can't introduce it in a, oh, excuse me, here's our truck. They have to be big.

GLINTON: Okay. So the show is getting started. For the few thousand people in the Joe Louis Arena, they play a movie. Now, you know how ridiculous those truck commercials are during football games where trucks are crossing boulders and climbing mountains and stuff? Well, multiply that by 11.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So ladies and gentlemen, this is the new Ford F-150, the toughest, smartest, most capable F-150 ever.

GLINTON: When you're looking at it, if you're used to seeing trucks, it's that different looking. I mean, to be perfectly honest, there aren't too many different ways to trick out a truck, though I did see one with horns once and you can't get much better than that. What makes this truck different is its construction. Much of the body is made of aluminum, which is a lighter weight material than steel. This truck will be as much as 700 pounds lighter and much more fuel efficient.

ALAN MULALLY: You're talking to me about aluminum?

GLINTON: That's Alan Mulally. Before he came to Ford, he was executive at Boeing.

MULALLY: Well, this is definitely a tremendous technical innovation in the automobile industry and one of the things that gives me a lot of confidence, personally, is that the aluminum alloys that we're using are very similar to what we use in commercial airplanes, and they have proven their toughness and their durability.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, Jake Fisher, head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, says aluminum is more expensive and harder to handle, but it has some real advantages. It's lighter and it weathers better. Fisher says if this truck succeeds, it'll change the way car companies do business.

JAKE FISHER: And I think it's not even so much an F-150 story. But if F-150 soldiers the way with a high volume vehicle aluminum, this may pave the way for a lot of vehicles having aluminum body parts. If they change the atmosphere out there so the body shops are ready to paint aluminum and work with aluminum, maybe your next Hyundai might be an aluminum body too.

GLINTON: Each of the Detroit automakers has gotten better at making smaller cars, but they're still reliant on trucks. The average truck on the road is more than 10 years old. So there's a lot of pent-up demand to replace them. Add to that a recovering housing sector, and you've got a potent mix for the future.

NERAD: When you talk about the F-150, you're talking about the future of Ford Motor Company, so what's at stake is Ford Motor Company.

GLINTON: Okay. Back to Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book. The F-150, just this one truck is responsible for about a quarter of Ford's sales and even more of its profits.

NERAD: Because so much of Ford Motor Company's profits come from F-150, no, they're not going to go from, you know, selling 650,000 to selling zero. But this is a big, big deal in terms of corporate profits. And if they lose significant market share in this segment, they're losing significant profitability.

GLINTON: At this auto show, the Chevy Silverado nabbed the award as truck of the year. Last year, Chrysler's Dodge Ram 1500 won as well. So if Ford's gamble doesn't pay off, truck buyers have plenty of options. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.