In a market where engineers hope every ounce of weight savings can be directly attributed to improved fuel economy, increased use of lighterweight materials seems to be the logical choice. What this means to the future design, overall strength and long-term durability of our pickup trucks remains to be seen.
We've been talking for years about how automakers are using more and more exotic materials to save weight, with Ford doing the best job of spreading the technology across its product lineup. Early reports, as far back as 2007, had the F-150 team experimenting with aluminum and magnesium to save as much as 750 pounds in full-size pickup trucks. Back then, Ford CEO Alan Mulally went on record as saying he wanted to reduce the weight of all its vehicles by 250 pounds, which we assumed to be small cars, to 750 pounds, which we assumed to be the larger full-size pickups.
Ford like many other manufacturers is already deep into extensive use of aluminum and high-strength steel to save weight on current premium (Lincoln), mainstream (Ford), and commercial vehicles (mostly in Europe), but we expect more aggressive use of the aluminum-magnesium compounds as the push to squeeze out more and more 10ths of an mpg becomes necessary. The problem arises when you consider that most of these lighter compounds are also softer and more expensive, so body and frame engineers will have to be careful about exactly where and how much of the material to use.
Automotive News recently reported that some manufacturers like Audi and Jaguar have been using aluminum extensively in body and unibody frame construction for many years, but with more aggressive corporate average fuel economy numbers on the horizon in 2016, 2018 and finally 2025, you can bet there will be more call for more aluminum usage across the industry. That's great news for aluminum producers like Alcoa, which is expecting the auto industry's aluminum consumption to double in a little over 10 years. In fact, Alcoa predicts that the average amount of aluminum per car will rise from today's current level of 343 pounds to 550 pounds in 2025, and likely even more for the larger pickups.
To a certain degree, the use of these softer, lighter materials makes sense for smaller cars, but how they will impact issues like durability, safety and replacement-part costs remains to be seen. Just about every vehicle, including some of the commercial trucks like Ford's Transit Custom, have unibody chassis and relatively light-duty powertrains. There's no doubt that engineers will have to be careful with ladder frame construction, suspension components and load-carrying surfaces. Likewise, more extensive use of aluminum/magnesium/graphite in wheels, engine blocks and frames also could prove rewarding, yet risky and expensive.
Materials like magnesium, though relatively prevalent (some have it listed as the eighth most common element on Earth), could natually impact build costs and eventual transaction prices of pickup trucks. Already, some are reporting that aluminum supplies are getting tighter, with the average price of aluminum already significantly higher than mild or high-strength steel, and that price is likely to continue to rise with demand.
Richard Schultz, managing director of Ducker Worldwide, a global consulting firm, told Automotive News that each pickup would likely have to shed as much as 800 pounds to meet the coming EPA regulations. Schultz went on to say he though manufacturers would be able to hit that target by 2020.
Whether all this will mean more design exercises in the vein of the Honda Ridgline or something like the Ford F-100 concept we remember hearing about also remains to be seen. Regardless of what happens, every truckmaker is going to have to do a lot of work to convince truck buyers that all this weight savings will not impact their truck negatively, specifically reducing the amount of load it'll be able to haul, how much trialer it can tow, and how confidently it can do it.
We've already seen the 2013 Ram 1500, with its aluminum hood, powertrain casings, doors and control arms, but it wouldn't surprise us to see the new GM offerings to once again play with plastic composites, carbon fiber and high-strength steel, as well. But, as mentioned before, Ford looks like its leading this race to save weight at the moment, with more advanced experiments showing up in its future commercial truck offerings.
Our advice: Don't blink because this could get exciting.