Auto companies like to project the image of being cutting-edge. And they are, but in a world filled with inventive people it’s hard to come up with things that have never been tried before. Electric cars might seem new, but in fact the earliest vehicles were powered by battery (or steam). The internal combustion engine put that technology out of business—at least until recently. And aluminum bodies, which have received so much attention now that the F-150 has one, have been around for 100+ years.
I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Scotty’s Castle, a National Park Service property in Death Valley, CA. Inside the visitor’s center I saw the unrestored 1914 Packard Touring Car the property’s original owner used to drive back and forth to Los Angeles. It would have been a 600 mile round trip across desert and mountain roads—an impressive feat for a vehicle of that time. Equally impressive was the body, which except for the fenders was aluminum. Yes, an aluminum body in 1914. I don’t know why Packard chose that material. Maybe they did it because aluminum was seen as a cutting-edge material appropriate for use in a luxury vehicle that cost as much as a house and was the Rolls Royce or Ferrari of its day.
In today’s world, the reasons for going with aluminum have to do utility rather than status; it makes for a more fuel-efficient vehicle with greater payload capacity and a body that won’t rot away when exposed to road salt. The 2015 F-150 is the first pickup to have an aluminum body but it won’t be the last. A story in The Wall Street Journal says GM plans to “field a largely aluminum-bodied pickup truck by late 2018, under pressure from federal fuel efficiency standards and archrival Ford Motor Co.” It goes on to say that GM “recently locked-in supply contracts with Alcoa Inc. and Novelis Inc., which are now working to increase their aluminum sheet production to supply the next-generation GM pickup, the people said. Aluminum sheet for automotive bodies is in such high demand that companies need to order it years in advance.”
According to USA Today, GM spokesman, Tom Wilkinson, dissed the new truck by saying "The F-150 is a nice update of the old truck, with modestly higher payload and trailer ratings offset by still-unanswered questions about insurance costs and access to body repairs outside of major cities". It might be more accurate to describe Wilkinson’s comments as sowing doubt about a competitor while his company prepares to produce its own aluminum bodies. Unlike Ford, which attaches aluminum body parts with rivets and adhesive, GM is said to be planning to attach them with welds—a more traditional method that will allow them to introduce aluminum body trucks without retooling their factories.
In an effort to determine the cost of repairing an aluminum body, Edmunds took a sledgehammer to a new F-150 and had the truck repaired at a nearby Ford dealer. The story received a lot of attention because it contained video of the sledgehammer attack. Edmunds concluded it will be significantly more expensive to repair the aluminum body of the new F-150 than it was to repair the steel bodies of earlier models.
Ford and others disagree with Edmunds’ conclusions and object to the way they performed the test—Edmunds asked the body shop to repair rather than replace the damaged panel. Consumer Reports chastised Edmunds for taking the truck to a dealership that was not certified by Ford to work on the aluminum truck and said “replacing the panel — the cost for the panel is the same for aluminum and steel ones — would have been a simpler and quicker solution. The F-150 was designed to be modular for easier repair”.
Carscoops asked Ford Truck Communications Manager Mike Levine about the Edmunds’ story and was told “Edmunds’ experience with repair time and cost at one particular dealer in California is not at all what new F-150 customers should expect. Based on the Edmunds’ story, the repair should have taken less than 10 hours and not 20 hours. Ten hours is comparable with the time it would have taken to repair a steel vehicle with similar damage, based on historical data collected from repairs of other Ford vehicles with aluminum body panels.”
Car and Driver addressed the issue of insurance by contacting Dr. Robert Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute. The story’s author asked Hartwig about the “cost impact aluminum-bodied vehicles have to consumers. In the case of a high-volume car like the F-150, he believes the switch to an aluminum-intensive construction might increase owners’ insurance premiums slightly, but any increase likely wouldn’t be very noticeable. How could this be? Dr. Hartwig pointed out that the portion of most drivers’ insurance premiums devoted to collision repair is rather small, with the majority given to liability coverage. Given that comprehensive and collision typically makes up about a third of a premium, any increase in repair costs won’t drastically affect overall premium rates." The story also stated that in cases where manufacturer "adopts new, pricier materials, insurers need time to gather more data before determining any adjustments to collision insurance costs relative to previous models. So we’re going to have to wait for the next-generation F-150 to hit the road—and for truck owners to start hitting stuff—before we learn whether an insurance penalty exists.”
Having been the “victim” of the video of the sledgehammer attack, Ford released an entertaining video of its own (see below). Intended to illustrate the strength of the aluminum alloy used in the F-150, it shows sports figures blasting hockey pucks, baseballs, golf balls, and a 16-pound shot put at the beds of aluminum and steel trucks. It would have been interesting to see the same thing done to fenders, doors, and body panels. Ford claims to have chosen the bed because it takes more abuse than other parts of the truck; I suspect they chose it because it contains thicker metal. Whatever the reason, it’s fun to watch people beat on new trucks (that someone else paid for).