January 17, 2014 – Vol.18 No.44
 

Armchair Review: Ford's Greener Aluminum Pickup
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News

 

You have to give Ford credit. They've got serious stones to build their most manly, and also their most popular and profitable vehicle, not out of rough-tough steel, but out of whimpy aluminum, the stuff of soda cans, siding and screen doors (but also of airplanes.)

Ford can't be sure how the market will react. My guess is positively.

The company has done its research. Mostly the F-150 is marketed to the blue collar world. Yet for many, the truck – whose roots go back to the early days of the Ford Motor Company – is just a useful daily driver. (Which is why Ford offers so many snazzed-up versions.)

As a material, aluminum is no stranger to hands-on, very practical, working class. Aluminum is used in a wide variety of building materials and tools. Aluminum has been used for commercial truck and trailer bodies for decades, as well as some body panels, transmission casings and a host of other vehicle parts, both car and truck. And for those who like to get on the water for sports and recreation, aluminum boats and canoes have been around like, forever. All this in mind, truck buyers may say to Ford's aluminum F-150 launch: It's about time.

But Ford didn't decide to build the latest generation of the F-Series (dating back to 1948) out of aluminum just to add new appeal to customers. It's all about saving fuel, generating better gas mileage. The company says the new truck weighs 700 pounds less than the comparable outgoing model. Though Ford has yet release estimated fuel economy numbers, I'm guessing as much as a 5 MPG fuel economy improvement. Other enhancements such as a stop-start system and better aerodynamics through closable grill shutters will help increase MPG as well.

Not surprisingly, other than the fuel saving aspects of light, but strong aluminum, Ford probably WON'T be pushing the aluminum's other environmental attributes. (For good reason. Ford is selling to often conservative working people, not to a bunch of Greenies that hang around much maligned Al Gore.) The aluminum body will certainly lower the truck's carbon footprint in a full life-cycle analysis. Aluminum does take a considerable amount of energy to produce, but often aluminum smelting is done with clean, renewable energy. (There's large aluminum operation in Iceland, for instance, the operates using the nation's abundant geothermal power.) Aluminum is also endlessly recyclable using only 5 percent, or so, of the energy needed to make it in the first place.

This recyclability and the relatively high cost of aluminum scrap will also give the F-150 more value at the end of life. A decade from now junk yards will be eagerly awaiting the first 150 to be hauled through the gates.

Aluminum's high scrap value and easy recyclability, however, also lead us to the first drawback of the 2015 F-150. Since aluminum scrap is so expensive and easy to recycle, look for the F150 to be one of the most popular vehicles to be stolen. The heck with scurrying stolen trucks over the border or dismantling them for parts, thieves will just chop up the trucks and sell the metal.

The two drawbacks are related, and add the risk to Ford's marketing.

Those who are familiar with the metal know that while aluminum can be as strong as steel, it also dents more easily than steel, making trips to the body shop more often, something that insurance companies won't like and will be watching.

Further, working with aluminum, such as welding, requires different skills than working with steel thus adding to repair concerns.

The last problem, though minor for most folks, will be understood by those familiar with metals. Aluminum is marketed as a metal that doesn't rust. That's not exactly true. The word "rust" means the corrosion of iron or steel. Bare aluminum, not anodized or painted, will corrode, its just not called rust. Aluminum does set up a protective layer as soon as it's exposed to oxygen in the air. However, corrosion will continue and in salty environments this could be rapid. Ford will certainly be using its best corrosion protection practices to prevent this. Just like its rare to see rusted new steel cars and trucks, it will be rare to see corroded aluminum F-150's. Still the hard core will be watching.

Apparently, though launched now, the new F-150 won't be on dealer lots until the fall of 2014. Bummer.

 

2015 Ford F-150

 

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