Ford's Most Popular Trucks Get A Little Lighter

The 2015 F-150 sheds 700 pounds thanks to the introduction of more aluminum and high-strength steel.

Ford/Emma Green

The new 2015 Ford 150, the best-selling truck and one of the best-selling vehicles in America, will be up to 700 pounds lighter than its predecessors.

In a long-awaited move, Ford is "lightweighting" the workhorse truck, substituting high-strength steel for mild steel in the frame and aluminum alloys for steel in the rest of the vehicle.

"The 2015 is going to be all aluminum: hood, front-end structure, body, body structure, doors, doors inners, doors outers, pickup box, pickup box floor, box inners, and the tailgate," said Pete Reyes, chief engineer for the 2015 F-150. "That jump really matched the challenge for a more productive tool."

Aluminum weighs less than steel, so a visually identical part can be substantially lighter. The new steel is stronger than the old steel, so engineers can use less of it, taking weight off indirectly. In simple terms: If a vehicle weighs less, it requires less energy to move it, increasing fuel efficiency.

A 2012 New York Times article noted that steelmakers now offer more grades of steel, including high-strength steel. “A part that weighed 100 pounds is being replaced by one that’s 75 pounds, with no price increase,” a steel industry representative told the Times.

The swap in materials is something that all the car companies are exploring to increase or maintain the performance of their vehicles while making them more fuel efficient.

But the lightweighting of the F-150 has symbolic value. We're talking about a vehicle that sells more than 750,000 units per year. This is as mainstream as it gets. It's not a new version of the Prius, but a truck most often purchased and driven outside the large, liberal coastal cities.

This approach to efficiency has come a long way since the Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins began pushing (more radical) lightweighting ideas in 1993. Lovins envisioned a radically redesigned "supercar" that would weigh just a thousand pounds and get 150 miles to the gallon.

The new F-150 is a much more conservative take on the lightweighting idea. Depending on the model, the 2014 truck had a curbweight of 5128 to 5904 pounds. The new 2015 models will weigh in roughly between 4400 to 5200 pounds. That's significant, but it's not exactly a "supertruck."

The lightweighting effort is part of Ford's 2007 sustainability plan, which promised a 250-750 weight reduction of their fleet's vehicles. "When we published that plan, the '09 vehicle was nearly designed and the next one is 2015," Reyes said. "So, this is the time we were going to make the jump as part of an overall Ford blueprint."

The big car and truck companies love talking about technology these days. They load up their vehicles with GPS units, radar, and self-parking artificial intelligence. Chevy is even launching an app storeThe Verge declared, "Cars are the new smartphones."

That's because companies like Ford increasingly see that their customers are tech-savvy and tech-interested, no matter where they live. In a conference call with me, Doug Scott, their corporate marketing manager, showed me a slide of a farmer in a tricked-out combine.

"This might not be the combine that you might imagine that you see a farmer in when you look at the amount of technology and connectivity in this combine... About 17 percent of the combines and tractors out there have Wi-Fi, and that's growing," Scott said. "One of the publications we look at is Successful Farming and in a recent edition, they were talking about drones being used and robotic farming. Where a lot of people might not perceive these customers to be on the leading edge, the reality is that they absolutely are."

But all the connectivity is window-dressing relative to the technology that goes into the actual vehicles themselves. While the basic form of the modern vehicle has been established for decades, the materials that compose its body and chassis are beginning to change. Steel has been the standard because it's strong and relatively cheap and everybody uses it. It works.

But there's a problem: Steel is heavy. Steel is the main reason why cars and trucks weigh thousands of pounds. Over the last decade, carmakers have been trying new, stiffer steels and testing out aluminum bodies.

Ford itself has been working with these materials for more than two decades. It's one thing to imagine what a lightweighted truck might look like on paper. It's quite another to roll out new materials in the country's most popular truck.

Jim DeVries, manager of materials research and engineering for the F-150 lightweighting team, said they'd been looking at the materials for more than 20 years. He pointed to collaborations that the company did with Jaguar and Aston Martin with their aluminum vehicles. "The timing is right," he said.

Reyes, the chief engineer, said that the testing process had showed them how to optimize the aluminum for the daily rigors that trucks encounter in the real world.

They built prototypes they call X-Phase, which took their pre-2015 model truck and stamped it all out of aluminum, then put them through their standard "torture" tests for trucks. They ran them through a battery of impact tests, too.

To see if customers would notice the new material in the box of the pickup bed, they created a truck with an aluminum box that looked identical to a standard truck. They shipped a few off to customers like Wallace Construction in Pennsylvania, telling them they were doing alloy testing, and watched the companies put them through the paces.

From all that, they learned they needed a slightly different kind of aluminum, 6000-series, instead of the grade typically used in cars, 5000-series. In the F-150, 70 percent of the aluminum is 6000-series. They also learned where they might need reinforcement, especially around high-load areas, and how to tailor specific parts using the newer materials.

One important caveat to keep in mind: Scholars who have been tracking these developments report that, if you take into account all the greenhouse gas emissions used to produce "virgin" aluminum versus using recycled steel, the total greenhouse gas emission savings from lightweighting with aluminum might not be that great. The environmental friendliness of the design rest, in part, on the specifics of how the aluminum is produced and whether it's ultimately recycled.

Going forward, Ford is considering the use of even more advanced materials that are currently less "mature" than the high-strength steel and aluminum. Some options that many automakers discuss include carbon fiber, as well as various plastics.

"We have a lot of vision going forward but for our whole fleet and what we need to lightweight, but for this vehicle, [mature technology] was the right decision," Reyes said.