Ford’s Aluminum Body 2015 F150: Is 30mpg Worth The Risks?
I feel sorry for the decision-makers at Ford. I’m not bagging on Ford (for the record, I think they deserve a hell of a lot of credit for being so bold), but their decision to use aluminum extensively in the upcoming F150 is the result of a terrible choice.
By my reckoning, Ford had only two options when it came to designing the next-gen F150:
Option #1 – Keep building the same great tried-and-true steel truck while using an increasing variety of tricks and fancy systems to squeeze out a few more MPG’s, or;
Option #2 – Take a big risk and be the first automaker to make a truck that extensively uses light-weight materials.
While option #2 is the most logical – weight loss is the best way to improve fuel economy and meet government-mandated fuel economy requirements – it’s easily the worst best choice available. I have no doubt that the first generation of aluminum F150s will be universally disliked by truck owners in the decades to come. This is not a commentary on Ford’s engineering talent. This is the inexorable conclusion I’ve been lead to based on all the available data. If you keep reading, I expect you’ll come to the same conclusion.
First, Here’s What We Know About the 2015 F-150
The details are coming fast and furious, but here’s what we know:
- The new F150’s frame is still made from steel, but it’s going to be a lightweight steel that uses a new manufacturing process designed to trim weight
- The new truck will use nearly 1,000 lbs of aluminum for everything from suspension components to body panels to transmission housings to the engine block
- A new start-stop fuel savings system will be available (only it will be limited to a specific engine or pair of engines)
- The new F150 will feature active grille shutters and – on higher trim levels – power running boards that retract into the vehicle body to reduce aerodynamic drag
- Aluminum body panels and interior structure will generate about 500lbs of weight savings, and will make copious use of both rivets and adhesive for bonding
- A 2wd F150 with the right mix of features is likely to get a 30mpg highway rating from the EPA
It’s rumored that there’s a 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine being considered for this lighter F150, but that seems unlikely. A smaller EcoBoost 2.7L V6 has been discussed for a while now (code named “nano”), and of course Ford will be unveiling some new styling and a bevy of luxury features on the new truck (as is the trend in the industry). But the big story is the extensive use of aluminum.
Let’s Give Ford Some Credit
Most automakers who have been forced to choose between true innovation and half-measures have chosen the latter. Rather than do something dramatic that makes sense (like reducing weight), they’ve opted for a short-cut. Why re-invent the pickup truck when you can just sell consumers on the values of a new twin turbo V6? Or a smart new engine computer that deactivates cylinders to save fuel? Or a fancy air suspension system that improves aerodynamics on the highway?
After all, these complex and relatively expensive systems can be sold as “features.” Even though these systems offer minimal value to the end-user (most trucks get about the same fuel economy with or without these systems), automakers love bolting more gizmos onto a cheap (and heavy) steel chassis. There’s a lot of profit in that approach. Well, except for Toyota, who seems to prefer the “none of the above” choice, making no meaningful effort to improve fuel economy (at least not yet).
Ford, on the other hand, has gone all-in. They’re putting their reputation on the line to build the most fuel-efficient full-size truck on the market. The trouble is, mixing aluminum and steel is tricky.
Lightweight Alloys Don’t Mix With Steel
I’d argue that Ford’s F150 engineering teams are as good as any in the industry. The F150 is capable, affordable, and generally does quite well in various industry quality and durability studies. While Toyota’s Tundra tends to do a bit better in terms of quality and durability (as well as resale), Toyota can’t match the F150’s low cost and variety of options. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend an F150 to anyone who didn’t like the Tundra.
Yet no amount of engineering talent can anticipate every problem. When you mix steel and aluminum alloy, you see:
- Galvanic corrosion. Because steel and aluminum alloy have dissimilar electrical potentials, the connection points between the two metals will corrode in the presence of moisture. What’s more, once that corrosion begins, it can accelerate rapidly. This is because hydroxide (aka drain cleaner) is often a byproduct of galvanic corrosion…as you can imagine, a corrosive process that produces a corrosive chemical as a byproduct progresses quickly.
- Dissimilar expansion and contraction rates. Different metals expand and contract differently at any given temperature. Thus, any connections you make between the two metals have to be designed to expand and contract and/or they have to be flexible. Any sealants you use to protect aluminum and steel assemblies from moisture have to be flexible as well, or they’ll break and allow moisture to penetrate.
- Manufacturing challenges and subsequent durability problems. Steel is easy to work with. If you need two pieces of steel joined together, you weld them and call it a day. Yet aluminum is hard to weld without warping, so many aluminum vehicles (like the new Corvette) rely heavily upon adhesives, rivets, and newly invented welding techniques. Adhesive bonding (aka gluing parts together) has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last 40 years, but it’s hard to know if the adhesive bonding techniques Ford will use in the aluminum F150 will stand up to the rigors of truck use. Rivets are a tried-and-true option, but they’re vulnerable to corrosion. Newly invented welding techniques seem promising, but there’s simply not a lot of data.
And that bit about “standing up to the rigors of truck use” is really the key point. There are lots of all-aluminum vehicles on the road today, but they’re mostly sporty luxury cars. Is the owner of an all-aluminum SL550, for example, hauling a 10,000 pound trailer up a 6% grade? Hauling a heavy payload across the desert on a hot summer day? Plowing an alpine driveway in sub-zero weather? I’m willing to grant that all-aluminum sports cars and luxury sedans can be durable and reliable, but these vehicles are not beaten upon like your average truck.
What’s more, all aluminum vehicles don’t have nearly the corrosion risks that a steel and aluminum mix will face.
While Ford is using specially coated aluminum panels to prevent galvanic corrosion, self-piercing rivets to limit contamination during manufacture, considerable amounts of adhesive to ensure structural rigidity, etc., the simple fact is this: Ford is breaking new ground. While the end result is going to be very positive, unforeseen problems are likely to arise…especially in the first few model years.
But What About Testing? Ford Isn’t Stupid
Ford is not stupid. I’ve known a lot of Ford employees in my life, and the vast majority of them have been smart and capable. I’ve got nothing but respect for Ford’s engineering talent. You can bet that Ford is testing the hell out of the new aluminum F150.
Yet Ford’s engineers tested the hell out of the EcoBoost V6, and they failed to identify a relatively serious stalling problem until well after the EcoBoost was made available for sale. Going back further, Ford’s engineers tested the hell out of the 6.4L diesel, and they failed to find a series of problems that would lead to stalling, crop-dusting, and exhausts that literally spit flames.
The same can be said for Tundra and Tacoma engineers that didn’t fully appreciate the corrosive climate in America’s “rust belt,” GM engineers that didn’t fully appreciate the fire risks of heating windshield washer fluid, Boeing 787 engineers that didn’t fully appreciate the fire risks of lithuim-ion battery systems, space shuttle engineers that didn’t fully recognize the dangers of poorly designed solid rocket booster O-rings, etc.
Put another way, engineers can only test for the failure modes they anticipate. When you consider the inherent complexity of mixing aluminum and steel, and you consider all the wear and tear that trucks endure, it should be painfully obvious that the aluminum F150 will have problems. The only questions are “How many problems?” and “How bad will they be?”.
Ford is Paving the Way to The Future, But At What Cost?
Ford’s decision to be the first to build an aluminum truck will offer few benefits in the short term. While Ford will brag about 30mpg fuel economy, the first few years of the aluminum F150 will be ugly. I predict a litany of issues associated with corrosion, fit and finish, and manufacturing quality.
Meanwhile, GM, Toyota, Nissan, and Chrysler-Fiat will keep on building the same old steel trucks. While these competing trucks won’t get 30mpg, they’ll be affordable, capable, and incredibly reliable. GM, Ram, and Toyota won’t win any awards for innovation, but they will build trucks that are relatively problem-free.
Will Ford lose market share as a result of their decision to go aluminum? Perhaps. It certainly won’t take much for the Internet to over-react to aluminum F150 quality problems. A few YouTube videos depicting aluminum F150s with problems is all it will take to put a dent in Ford’s sales….imagine photos of an aluminum body panel that’s “exfoliating” due to galvanic action, like the image below.
Ford’s decision to jump head-first into infotainment with the MyFord Touch system is a great illustration of what will happen with the aluminum F150: Ford’s innovation will help to pave the way for the rest of industry, but it will also damage Ford’s relationship with countless consumers and hurt their quality ratings.
Summing up, Ford’s new aluminum F150 is going to change the truck market as we know it, and there’s no doubt that we’ll all benefit from their decision to innovate in the long run. Ford deserves kudos for a bold decision to build a truck with an aluminum body. But in the short run, Ford’s aluminum F150 is going to have quality and durability problems. You can count on it.
Filed Under: Auto News