and TOM KRISHER
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Ford pickups have been doing the country's work for 66 years. They've hauled grain, towed logs and plowed snow. They've cleared debris after tornadoes and pulled floats in the Rose Bowl parade.
They've shouldered those loads with parts forged from steel. Until now.
On Monday, Ford (F) unveils a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out of aluminum. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still heavily reliant on steel.
The change is Ford's response to small-business owners' desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck -- and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. And it sprang from a challenge by Ford's CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
"You're either moving ahead and you're improving and you're making it more valuable and more useful to the customer or you're not," Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Ninety-seven percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck. And this isn't just any truck. F-Series trucks -- which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250 -- have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the last 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds.
The key question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is:
"We're aggressive, stretching the envelope," said Sam Pack, owner of four Ford dealerships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "I think you have to do that. If you don't, then you get into that predicament of being a 'me too' vehicle."
Still, it's a big risk. Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells, making trucks a $7.6 billion profit center in the U.S. alone last year. And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle launches, adding to dealers' worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been the subject of seven recalls.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. While aluminum is more expensive that steel, Ford truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the current price range. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
It's difficult to calculate how much more aluminum costs, since there are different grades of aluminum and steel. Pete Reyes, the F-150's chief engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down the engine and other components, since they won't have to move so much weight.
Aluminum was used on cars even before the first F-Series went on sale in 1948. It's widely used on sporty, low-volume cars now, like the Tesla (TSLA) Model S electric sedan and the Land Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.
Ford has spent decades researching the metal. Twenty years ago, the company built a fleet of 20 all-aluminum experimental sedans. Later, it used aluminum on exotic cars from Aston-Martin and Jaguar, brands it used to own. But up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods and used steel for the rest.
Higher Fuel-Economy Mandates
New government fuel economy requirements, which mandate that automakers' cars and trucks get a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to aluminum. Chrysler's Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup, getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg. Ford won't say what the new truck's fuel economy will be, but says it will trump the competition.
That could be an especially important incentive for landscapers, carpenters and other small business owners focused on their bottom line.
"I think that's going to outweigh the aluminum part of it," said Brian Jarrett, a Ford dealer in Winter Haven, Fla., who hasn't yet seen the new truck.
Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. (AA) -- one of Ford's suppliers for the F-150 -- figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.
And Ford is able to take more risks. When the F-150 was last redesigned, in the mid-2000s, Ford was losing billions each year and resources were spread thin. But by 2010, when the company gave the green light to an all-aluminum truck, Ford was making money again. CEO Alan Mulally, a former Boeing Co. (BA) executive who joined Ford in 2006, encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led early development of Boeing's Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with even lighter-weight plastics to be more efficient and fly further.
"Everything becomes more efficient once you take the weight out," Mulally says. He expects aluminum to be used across Ford's model lineup in the future.
Ford is convinced truck buyers will accept the change. The company says the new truck will tow more and haul more, since the engine doesn't have to account for so much weight. It can also accelerate and stop more quickly. Aluminum doesn't rust, Ford says, and it's more resistant to dents.
Reyes says the company planted prototype F-150s with three companies -- in mining, construction and power -- for two years without revealing they were aluminum. The companies didn't notice a difference.
Mulally says Ford's customers have already shown a willingness to adopt new technology. Forty percent of the F-Series trucks sold last year had Ford's more efficient EcoBoost engines, for example, which were introduced just three years ago. And Mulally says owners trust Ford.
Ford will still have a tough time wresting customers from the competition, mainly Chevrolet, GMC and Ram, says Jesse Toprak, an independent auto industry consultant in Los Angeles.
"Movement between brands in the full-size truck segment is extremely minimal," Toprak says. "It's the strongest loyalty of any segment."
Still, about 20 percent of pickup buyers traditionally are open to jumping from brand to brand based on features or price, Toprak said. The company with the newest, most advanced truck has the advantage in getting those customers, plus those who are new to the market, Toprak says.
Some steel remains on the truck. The frame beneath it is built primarily of high-strength steel, which Ford says will make it tougher and stiffer than the current frame. There's also steel in the front dashboard, because Ford thought steel was better at dampening nose from the engine.
In all, a four-door F-150 has 660 pounds of aluminum, or nearly double the average use of aluminum per vehicle used now, according to Drive Aluminum, an aluminum industry website. If the Ford truck is a success, use of aluminum could expand rapidly at the expense of steel.
"People are beginning to truly understand the value that aluminum can bring to the table," Lowery said.
Ford is expecting some issues with the design or the manufacturing as it makes the change, Mulally said. But the company is working hard to troubleshoot.
"I think the attitude is, expect the unexpected and expect to deal with it," he says. "Sometimes I think our core competency is scrambling. That's not unique to Ford."
Mulally, who grew up driving an F-150 on his family's farm in Kansas, particularly likes the new truck's front windows, which dip down 2 inches for better visibility.
"That's just an unbelievable innovation. You're sitting up there and you need to know where you are," he says. "I think that is absolutely a laser focus on what the customer wants and values."