Keith Chrostowski

Ford showing its metal in moving to aluminum F-150

Updated: 2014-01-29T00:10:19Z

By Keith Chrostowski

The Kansas City Star

Ford’s F-150 pickup and plants that make them, including our own at Claycomo, will soon become a strategic asset in U.S. energy policy.

That’s not an outlandish statement considering the better gas mileage expected from the F-150s that will hit showrooms soon.

Beginning with the 2015 models, F-150s will glitter with a lot of aluminum. Instead of steel, just about every visible metal part of the new truck — doors, hood, side panels, bed and tailgate — will be made with aluminum alloys. So will the engine compartment.

Ford highlighted the fact the new truck will weigh 700 pounds lighter. But it didn’t really boast that it would be that much more fuel efficient, perhaps because it hasn’t yet released an EPA mileage estimate.

Analysts say, however, that the aluminum-light F-150 is expected to get 20 percent better mileage than current models. The 2014 EcoBoost V-6 gets 18 mpg combined city and highway driving while the V-8 chugs out a mere 15. Older F-150s, of course, do worse.

A 20 percent boost — roughly 3 mpg — might not impress you that much. But do some math and you’ll be appropriately staggered.

The Wall Street Journal’s most-excellent automotive columnist, Dan Neil, compared the new F-150 with the Toyota Prius. He does some averaging and rounding and applies the roughly 20 percent increase in fuel-efficiency to both the current F-150 and Prius.

The boost in the new F-150’s efficiency would save 13 gallons of gas per 1,000 miles driven. Such an increase in the Prius’ mileage would net a savings of just 3 gallons per 1,000 miles.

The math works because the Prius already gets a spectacular 50 mpg, using just 20 gallons of gas to travel 1,000 miles. Raise the mpg 20 percent to 60 and you get a relatively small reduction to 17 gallons.

At 15 mpg, an F-150 burns 67 gallons of gas. At 18.5 mpg, it would burn 54 gallons, for the 13-gallon savings.

But that’s not what will really shift the new F-150’s impact on U.S. energy use. Neil then applies the “Big Multiplier”: Ford sold 763,000 of the workhorse trucks last year. It’s the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. and has been for three decades.

So multiply the F-150’s fuel savings by 763,000 and you get this: The new models will save nearly 10 million gallons of gas per 1,000 miles driven.

Extrapolating Neil’s math a bit, say the average F-150 is driven 30,000 miles a year. That’s 300 million gallons of gas saved.

Now, the U.S. consumes 133 billion gallons of gas a year, so overall the F-150’s annual savings amount to a drop.

But assuming the new truck is a success, in a decade or so the entire U.S. fleet of F-150s will be the lighter aluminum models. And if other automakers follow Ford into the aluminum frontier, it’s quite a big result.

“By virtue of the hundreds of million of miles rolled up by the F-series annually,” Neil contends, “you are looking at the single biggest real-world advance in fuel economy in any vehicle since the Arab oil embargo.”

He then goes into overdrive and proposes that Ford CEO Alan Mulally receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I couldn’t be more serious,” Neil writes.

Neil notes that Ford and other automakers need to try harder to meet the EPA’s 54.5 mpg fleet mileage standard by 2025, and acknowledges that Ford is taking a risk in hoping that its traditional customers will embrace the move to aluminum.

He didn’t point out that dented or mangled aluminum is more expensive to fix in body shops, so repairs and insurance will be more expensive (although Ford just announced it will partly subsidize repairs).

But he contends that Ford executives “made the hard and right choice for their company and embraced the future. It also happened to be right for the country.”

So Ford should indeed be congratulated for taking this risk. Besides the fuel savings and how that would ease our dependence on foreign oil, it’s also a step in the right direction if you’re concerned about global warming. Think about how much the lighter pickups will cut carbon emissions.

We desperately need alternative and cleaner energy sources. But we also need to use less fossil fuel in the meantime.

All the automakers are beginning to make big strides in fuel efficiency and emissions. Toyota also should win our praise with the hybrid Prius — after all it sold 234,000 of them last year.

But Ford shows that gains can also come from responsible companies improving current technologies.

To reach Keith Chrostowski, business editor of The Star, call 816-234-4466 or send email to chrostowski@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/keithc3.

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