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Ford takes calculated risk with aluminum F-150

David Mindell
One of the F150s owned by Plantwise at site of controlled burn.

Ford Motor Company revealed a groundbreaking change for its top-selling F-150 truck at the North American International Auto Show on Monday. The new truck will have a body made mostly of aluminum instead of steel.

Ford is taking the calculated risk to retain its crown as the number one seller of pickups in the world.

Ford is banking on the loyalty of F-150 owners like David Mindell, CEO of Plantwise, a company that specializes in native plant landscaping and wetlands restoration.

"I’ve had F-150s for 16 years," he notes.  He has two now, a 2004, and a new 2013 truck with an Ecoboost engine.

Mindell’s livelihood depends on his two trucks. They must be reliable and they must be capable. 

"With the truck, we’re hauling all sorts of equipment, trailers, water tanks, that kind of thing," he says.

Ford says aluminum is actually a stronger metal than steel, pound for pound, and using it could cut 700 pounds from the F-150s weight. That’s a lot of weight, and it will make the truck more fuel efficient.

Mindell says that sounds great - as long as an aluminum truck is durable, capable, and safe.

Ford can’t really afford to lose customers like Mindell. About a third of Ford’s profits come from pickup trucks, so this change, to some, is a gamble.

It’s not just the customers who are closely watching . So are dealers like Brighton Ford owner Todd Spitler.

"Ford is not going to sacrifice the F-150," he says flatly in his conference room overlooking a new, bustling showroom.

Spitler has just as much at stake in the new truck as Ford does. He figures, at first, people will say, “aluminum, huh? Is it really stronger than steel?”

"We had the same thing when we went to a twin I-beam front suspension," he notes.  "Everyone was skeptical until it proved itself. It’s gonna have to prove itself, for sure. And it will."

Auto analyst Dave Sullivan of Autopacific says there is so much at stake here, and Ford must get this right.

"I think the F-150 is….it’s America. The whole country runs on pickup trucks."

Sullivan has no fears that the truck won’t be strong and reliable. But he says Ford has to avoid the multiple recalls that plagued the new Escape. And, the manufacturing process will be radically different. Instead of welds, workers will use rivets, and industrial adhesives.

"This is going to present a whole new – a totally different way of assembling a vehicle than Ford has ever done," Sullivan says.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally says the company is aware of the pitfalls. But with strict new fuel economy standards approaching, this is how Ford will stay a leader in trucks.

Mulally says he is confident that Ford can make the switch to aluminum parts, and have a flawless launch.

"We know them (aluminum parts) well," says Mulally.  We use them in aerospace, commercial airplanes – and we have a lot of experience ourselves."

Mulally has a lot of his own reputation riding on the success of the new truck. He’s said he will stay CEO of Ford at least through 2014, which means he’ll still be in charge when customers get their first look at the new truck.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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