Alan Mulally

Will aluminum lighten Ford's load?

January 31, 2014: 11:43 AM ET

After its metal makeover, F-150 will become more fuel-efficient, but it's unclear if the change will alter the truck's strong image.

By Doron Levin

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FORTUNE -- Ford Motor Co.'s decision to build its new F-150 with a mostly aluminum body is a moonshot, the first time an automaker has employed so much of the metal in a mainstream vehicle. The new F-150 will appear later this year and is Ford's single most profitable model.

Vehicle designers have been known to substitute aluminum for steel in selected components to take advantage of its lightness and, thereby, to improve fuel efficiency -- marginally.

Automakers, including Ford (F), are struggling to shave ounces and pounds off from the weight of their vehicles in order to comply with federal fuel efficiency standards that are growing more stringent.  By 2025 the government will demand a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon from every automaker, roughly twice the efficiency of 2011 models.

MORE: Toyota's hydrogen-powered gamble on the future

The payoff for reducing the new F-150's weight by about a whopping 700 pounds will be superior fuel efficiency, a key consideration for carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and other commercial users. Ford hasn't said what its tests show. Analysts are estimating a 20% increase over the current model.

A risk for Ford is that buyers of its pickup are accustomed to steel construction and haven't asked for aluminum, which can be more difficult to repair in the event of damage.  The cost penalty for aluminum likely will result in Ford asking a premium price.

Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS in Troy, Mich. said "they risk alienating customers, but [Ford's] customer base is loyal, and the company has built credibility with them."

A significant concern for Ford is whether dealers and other repair shops have the experience and tools to fix the new pickup when, inevitably, they are damaged in accidents. At the annual National Automobile Dealers Association convention in New Orleans this week, Ford announced that dealers can receive a 20% discount of up to $50,000 in purchases if they buy repair equipment by Oct. 31.

MORE: Stuffing the auto channel

Brinley said aluminum's disadvantage to steel, in terms of repair cost, "is because there hasn't previously been enough volume for shops to justify the tools or certification, though a longer process, with volume will come a more affordable repair cost." A Ford spokesman noted that aluminum is durable and will resist dents better than steel.

To accommodate changes the way it fabricates with the metal, Ford will have to close its Dearborn, Mich. pickup facility for 11 weeks this year, possibly a factor why the automaker has lowered its earnings forecast for this year.

General Motors (GM) is sure to be watching Ford closely since the two are neck and neck in pickup truck sales, each looking for ways to gain ground over the other.  In the event that aluminum construction doesn't impede Ford's pickup sales or rile its customers, GM probably will be forced to think of a counter-thrust.

Ford executives dismiss the notion that aluminum's use in F-150s has been advocated by the automaker's chief executive officer, Alan Mulally, who previously headed Boeing's commercial aircraft division. The idea is a bit too neat and simple to be correct, though Mulally surely is expert and has deep familiarity with the metal's capabilities.

Who says Detroit automakers are staid and hidebound? Ford is showing guts with its innovative new pickup design.  Its impact on the automaker could be vast.

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