Aluminum tough as steel? Does it matter?

February 12, 2014

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Scanning news sites this morning looking for something other than coverage of PAX, which I’m experiencing firsthand in the North Atlanta suburbs, I came across an interesting item on cnn.com—“Ford’s aluminum secret weapon.” The automaker is banking on its decision to build its next-generation F-Series pickups from aluminum instead of steel, believing that the material can be fabricated to be as tough as steel.

Many, including Ford’s competitors, are skeptical that this move toward lighter automobiles and improved fuel economy, will meet with success. The F-Series has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the past 32-years, and the automotive industry is watching closely to see how it fares with this major change.

The cnn.com article discussed the connection between aluminum supplier Novelis, and Ford as a possibe contributing factor in the company’s decision. Novelis CEO Phil Martens formerly was the automaker’s group vice president in charge of product development, which would have included pickup trucks. Martens left Ford in 2005 and Novelis is Ford’s main aluminum supplier.

Another presumed proponent of the move is Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who, in his previous job as head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft, was very familiar and comfortable with using aluminum.

Also watching this development with skepticism—and dread—is the steel industry. After all, if this new-generation F-Series is a success, other automakers may make the switch as well. Attempting to prevent this from happening, steelmakers are making the case for lightweight, high-strength steel, which they say matches aluminum in terms of weight, strength, and cost.

The Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, recently released a study of more than 3,000 U.S.-based truck and SUV owners regarding the role of steel in automobiles. According to the study, owners revealed that the strength of the material used in the frame and body of the vehicle holds as much significance over purchasing decisions as brand and cost. Ninety percent of those surveyed cited a strong preference for and likelihood to purchase brands that make use of advanced high-strength steels.

Research commissioned by the Aluminum in Transportation Group of the U.S. Aluminum Association and conducted by the EDAG Group built upon research EDAG performed in 2012 for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) examining mass reduction, safety and cost variables in a mid-size crossover Toyota Venza, made an argument for aluminum.

As noted on hybridcars.com, “the EPA study aimed to reduce vehicle mass by 20 percent while meeting all NHTSA and IIHS safety standards, and maintaining or improving performance, handling, and braking.

“It found that using a maximized high-strength steel (HSS) Venza body resulted in a body mass reduction of only 14 percent over the baseline production vehicle body, and that the study’s total vehicle mass reduction target could not be met without the use of aluminum closures and chassis components.”

This newer research reportedly used “a full aluminum body and closures to achieve almost three times the body mass reduction over the EPA study’s HSS vehicle, while still conforming to the same stringent safety and performance standards.”

Quoted on motortrend.com, Doug Scott, Ford’s head of truck marketing, said, “Customers don’t care what kind of material we use to build the F-150. (The SMDI might disagree.) They just want a great truck.”

Material arguments aside, the real test will come when the newly designed truck hits the market. Will it measure up to what buyers have come to expect from the F-1 Series?

As Edward Loh, author of the quoted motortrend.com article, said, “There is a lot we don't know about the new F-150 and whether the switch to aluminum will do great things for its acceleration, braking, payload capacity, safety, and fuel economy numbers. What we do know is this: The new F-150 has to be better in every way than the truck it replaces. It should be lighter, stronger, faster, stop shorter, get better fuel economy, yet tow and haul as much — if not more — than its predecessor. In fact, the new aluminum F-150 must be all these things, yet remain as close as possible to the price of a steel F-150. Why? Because while truck buyers might not care about what metal is in the F-150, they're certainly not going to shell out more silver for less.”

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