Pete Reyes, the chief engineer of Ford Motor Co.’s next-generation F-150, worked five years on the aluminum-body pickup, starting with secret lightweight mules of the current truck model in 2009 and ending earlier this year with the 2015 F-150’s debut at the Detroit auto show.
Reyes’ job is far from over. He and his team are out to share their experience designing and testing the new truck — not just for promotional reasons, but to sell the idea of an aluminum pickup to a sizable chunk of the truck market that is skeptical of the idea.
Reyes, in an interview at the automaker’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, said the rollout of the new truck — which culminates in the fourth quarter of this year when it begins to hit dealer lots — continues to evolve as feedback from customers, enthusiasts and the media pours in.
“After we debuted the truck at the North American International Auto Show, when we looked back at all the feedback and questions, a lot of the questions came back to, ‘How can you be sure that this truck will be just as tough?’ ” Reyes said.
The 2015 F-150 will be the first mass-market vehicle with a body made mostly of aluminum. The lightweight material cuts 700 pounds from the F-150 — mostly from the body — to help in Ford’s quest to meet strict federal fuel efficiency requirements.
Truck buyers as a whole are some of the most loyal customers in the industry, but they are also some of the most informed and aware of new technologies. The shift to aluminum, however, is stretching the limits, and is making Ford’s sell job to some longtime customers extra work.
Reyes said that Ford’s research shows that 80 percent of truck customers “get that aluminum on a steel frame is legitimate,” but that 20 percent still need to be convinced. Of that 20 percent, half will have an opinion difficult to sway.
“The new aluminum body structure … has some people wondering how capable the 2015 truck will be,” said Karl Brauer, an auto analyst at Kelley Blue Book, who was briefed on Ford’s plans. “Ford wants potential customers to be comfortable with these changes, so they are proving more background information than usual on the durability testing they’ve put the new F-150 through.”
Ford made it a point during testing to beat up its new truck more than any previous iteration. It up-gauged, or increased the thickness of some of its aluminum sheets, by 30 percent compared to steel sheets in the current truck, said Mark Keller, Ford manager for structures and body, and upped the thickness in the bed by nearly 50 percent.
Aluminum is one-third the density of steel, which means Ford could make the aluminum thicker and still drop more than 600 pounds from the truck’s body.
Testing will soon hit the 10 million-mile mark, two million more miles than the testing done during the last truck upgrade and more than double that of the F-150 from two decades ago. Ford used a torture rack that shakes and twists a truck repeatedly in seven different ways for five days, the equivalent of 225,000 miles of rough roads.
Aluminum doesn’t rust, so Ford made its corrosion tests even more punishing by upping the use of salt baths and acid sprays.
The detail in durability applies to areas of the truck the average customer will never see, like where the steel frame connects to the aluminum bed. The automaker came up with its own adhesive bonded patch to ensure the steel doesn’t corrode the aluminum.
How successful Ford is in educating on-the-fence consumers won’t be known until the truck goes on sale in the coming fall and winter. The results will also be influenced by price (Ford has not yet announced pricing, but aluminum costs more than steel), fuel efficiency and word-of-mouth from early customers.
Ford’s education won’t be limited to potential buyers. Dealers and repair shops, many of which at best have worked with aluminum in small doses, also face cost and workforce challenges ahead of the F-150’s launch.
Dan Risley, president of the Automotive Service Association, told The Detroit News last month that fewer than 20 percent of repair shops are fully and properly equipped to fix aluminum body structures.
Some repair shop representatives say there could be early mishaps with service representatives not familiar with fixing aluminum body structures.
Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief, said he believes any issues will be ironed out as the automaker begins certifying body shops to fix the F-150. The certification is not mandatory.
“As they get a little bit more knowledgeable and they come through our programs, they’ll understand the work that we’ve done in the areas to make this vehicle more serviceable and more repairable,” he said.