The Meaning of Aluminum
Although there is still a whole lot of 2014 ahead of us, I am fairly confident that there will be no bigger automotive-related news this year than Ford’s announcement that it is using aluminum for the F-150 light-duty pickup.
This isn’t exactly propitious timing product-news wise for Ford, given that it is also launching the 50th-anniversary Mustang this year, and as my colleague Peter DeLorenzo of autoextremist.com and a man who has an understanding of automotive marketing that’s far more astute than many people I can think of, the U.S. has two iconic vehicles, and one of them is the Mustang. (The other? The Corvette.) In some ways, the announcement of the one has quelled the announcement of the other.
The decision that Ford made regarding the use of aluminum for its biggest-selling vehicle wasn’t made lightly. Not only is this a volume vehicle that is critically important to the fortunes of Ford, but there are other factors that make the decision to make a radical material change all the more amazing. For one thing, just consider the raw real estate on the body and box of a pickup. This represents a huge quantity of sheet metal in and of itself. For another thing, you’ve got to know that Ford engineers (like their truck brethren at GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and Nissan) beat the you-know-what out of their trucks during the development program, knowing full-well that the kind of abuse that these vehicles take is incredible. Putting it in the context of cars, it’s like a UFC match vs. a game of chess.
The aluminum has to be up to the task. There really is no alternative.
Arguably, it might have made more sense for Ford to announce that the Mustang would be an aluminum-intensive vehicle. This would allow the Mustang to be positioned as a car with the sort of technology that can be found in vehicles like the Jaguar F-Type and Audi A8 at a fraction of the cost. The risk would have been much lower for Ford.
But as those of us who have been watching the 2014 Winter Olympics know, you go big or you go home.
In some ways, Ford’s decision marks in a significant way the first significant change that an OEM is making to address the pending CAFE standards as we approach 2025. The status quo just isn’t going to get any OEM there, so things need to change, not in an incremental way, but in a big one. Sure, there are going to be all manner of small improvements that will be beneficial (e.g., more vehicles getting equipped with start-stop system so gasoline isn’t burned when it isn’t helpful), but there need to be some big changes, whether it is through increased electrification of the powertrain or serious light weighting. And with Ford talking about how the 2015 F-150 will lose some 750 lb., clearly this is in the serious category.
For those who like a challenge, for those who like opportunity, for those who like to make fundamental changes, today in the industry is ideal. For those who simply want to keep doing what they’ve always done, who like to stay on an even keel, for those who are just looking for the end of the day, right now is probably a more difficult time to be in the industry than during the Great Recession.
For decades, there was pretty much a similarity in the way all OEMs and suppliers went about their work. Everyone pretty much made the same thing and did it in the same way.
That’s over. And things aren’t going to go back to the way they used to be.
That’s what Ford’s choice of aluminum means.
A young(ish) guy that I’ve known for a number of years, a man who spent the better part of his career writing for auto buff books and who is a car racer on the side, mentioned to me that his wife has a used Lexus ES Hybrid.
Generally, when OEMs produce aluminum engine blocks (aluminum rather than cast iron because cast iron weighs like cast iron), they insert sleeves into the piston bores—cast iron sleeves.
The engineers at Zenos Cars have combined recycled carbon fiber, drinking straws and aluminum to create a chassis for a low-volume sports car.