The 2015 “aluminum” Ford F-150 truck: Why steel isn’t panicking

Journalists from around the globe were in overdrive this week with a sexy car story from the North American International Auto Show focused on the 2015 Ford F-150 pick-up truck and its aluminum body. The vehicle was unveiled at Detroit’s Joe Louis arena, but in terms of the fight for automotive market share, it really doesn’t deliver a knockout punch to steel as some are suggesting.

Not yet anyway.

Ford F-150

Ford F-150

It does deliver a powerful body blow to steel use in an enormously popular vehicle. Ford’s official description of the truck says it is using “high-strength military-grade aluminum alloys in its body and bed.” But in the same paragraph, Ford gives a shout-out to steel, touting the truck’s “fully boxed, high-strength steel frame.” In short, the best-selling US vehicle is shedding some 700 lbs of previous weight that will boost fuel economy.

In perspective, however, the aluminum F-150 does more psychological damage to steel than physical harm. Consider:

  • According to statistics from the Washington-based American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), US steelmakers were on pace in 2013 to ship about 15 million short tons of steel to the automotive market. Total domestic shipments were expected to clock in at about 95 million st, meaning automotive consumes just less than 16% of all steel shipments. Two end-market segments consume more steel than automotive: service centers (25%) and construction (18%).
  • Sales of the F-150 in 2013 were nearly 650,000 units. If 700 lbs is saved-assuming all of it is coming out of steel’s hide – that’s 227,500 st of steel vanishing from all those trucks. Those tons will be a loss to the steelmakers supplying Ford for sure. But a couple hundred thousand tons isn’t much in a size-matters market measured by about 100 million tons. The loss represents just 0.24% of all steel mill shipments.

This is not to take anything away from what’s a big win for aluminum, which to date has made similar, but limited body-part inroads in mostly high-end vehicles (Audi, Range Rover). The F-150 buzz has made aluminum supporters more emboldened than ever. They see it as a mass-market victory. The question remains, however, as to how much influence Ford’s choice of materials for the F-150 will have on other manufacturers.

At the Platts Aluminum Symposium earlier this week, Randall Scheps, Alcoa’s marketing director, said North American auto sector aluminum demand is likely to grow by 1 million mt by 2025.

The average car would see the use of aluminum body sheet rise to 55 lbs/vehicle in 2015 from 12 lbs/vehicle in 2012, reaching 136 lbs by 2025, Scheps estimated.

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Yet, steel remains the dominant material in most all vehicle production-with a key reason being that auto plants are designed to handle steel rather than competitive materials. (See Saturn and engineered ‘plastic’ body panels, which was also touted as steel’s undoing-where are they now?) In terms of tooling and material cost efficiencies, steel has the edge. But the F-150 attention has certainly jolted the steel industry – which has been steadily developing lightweight, advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) – with yet another wake-up call.

In fact, overshadowed at the Detroit show, the steel industry unveiled what it called “conclusive findings” from a recent market study of steel in automobiles. The 2013 US Truck & SUV Market Study of more than 3,000 US-based truck and SUV owners was commissioned by the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the AISI, and conducted by MindClick Global, a leader in supply chain research and sustainability.

MindClick Global did more than 3,000 online interviews with participants representing the broader US consumer market. SMDI said the study revealed “at a 95% statistical confidence level that the manufacturing of vehicles using advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) grades increases overall automaker brand equity to the consumer. Contributing factors included steel’s reputation for safety, performance and fuel efficiency.”

SMDI added: “When directly compared to other automotive materials, steel is more strongly associated with strength, safety and protection of the family, an important and personal element of a consumer’s driving experience.”

Indeed the ‘superiority’ of cutting edge high-strength steels was put forth in this exclusive Platts’ interview with Gregory Ludkovsky, vice president, global research and development at ArcelorMittal.

I’m reminded of a meeting I had many years ago with a steel executive regarding steel versus aluminum in cars. We got to talking about consumer perceptions of crash worthiness and safety.

He handed me an empty aluminum beer can and told me to squeeze. Like anyone else, a little pressure and it crumpled. Then he gave me an empty soup can made of steel. I squeezed and it hardly flexed.

“Now, if you think of your car as just a big ol’ can on wheels,” he said, “which would you rather be in?”

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  1. Joshua at November 26, 2015 7:32 pm

    Do have to correct one thing. Ford f series is the best selling vehicle in the US. If you look at the break down the Silverado 1500 actually sells more than the f150.

  2. Ken Robertson at November 6, 2015 5:14 pm

    This could be great or a disaster. Questions: What alloy? 1100, 2024, 5052, 6061, 7075, and on and on. What heat treat “O”, T3, T4, T6, T7 and on and on. Is any of it Al-clad? What chemical conversion coating was used? What primer or primers? What top coat? I couldn’t find any answers to these questions. I drive a F-150 now. I have been driving Ford trucks since 1966.

  3. Blake Anderson at November 3, 2015 6:49 am

    is tooling and material cost efficiencies of steel is better than all materials ??

  4. James Lewis at April 7, 2014 1:34 am

    stress point at change of direction?

  5. Terry Hendrickson at April 4, 2014 3:16 pm

    I live in northern Canada and spend time where the roads north … there is even a 911 Highway in Northern Saskatchewan that ends and is bordered with some of the best naturally stocked fishing lakes in the world . Getting stuck off by myself is a fear when young are along and NOT carrying 700 lbs in and out off potholes is reason enough fro me to go AL . Then again with my Quad in the back @ 600 lbs it will be like a free ride for it ! Poor pulling on wet boat ramps is pure BS … the front wheels powered up are all you need .

    My Eccoboost sits on cruise @ 100 mph all day if necessary on rated Michelins !
    God I’d like to take the 100 mph limiiter off baby and with a roll over bar make two passes @ Salt lake speed flat ! If 2300 is 100 mph then let baby wind up to
    say 5000 rpm should see the back side of 200 mph | + At sea level GMC sez it’s better fuel wise than Ecoboost … What happens near Durango CO where swtichbacks @ 11000 ft elev in thin air separates the men from the boys !

    Nuff said ! Pound sand CM & Chrysler ..

    Terry .. out in the real world with his little Ford Eco ! Always gt a pull for GMC or
    Dodge pig on wheels !!

    • Olivier at April 7, 2014 12:28 am

      At 200 mph, any wrong move will send you flying, and wishing you had high gauge steel all the way around…
      As a man of the sea and metalworker, I can see why one appreciates Aluminium, but steel will always give you better survivability. AL just doesn’t bend… And it doesnt age well. And it’s a LOT more money.
      I don’t think machineworks is aluminum’s natural place.

      • Olivier at April 7, 2014 12:32 am

        Ohh, and don’t forget what happens when you have recurring electric currents sent through aluminum. Aluminum boats’ electricity works have to be done very well or nasty things happen to your precious hull.

  6. ChuckR at January 28, 2014 10:58 pm

    re: the misleading comment on steel vs aluminum cans. The aluminum can is designed to be the cheapest reliable solution to holding a beverage. When steel an be made to do the job more cheaply, then we’ll see a return to steel cans for beverages. I don’t ride in either soup cans or beer cans. Do you?
    That said, I’d like the extremities of my car to crush like the beer can and the passenger compartment to stay intact like the soup can. Pretty much what cars are being designed to do in collisions. How they do it is their choice as long as IIHS is satisfied.

  7. robert at January 20, 2014 11:30 am

    The jury is still out on traction on things like boat ramps (wet/slippery) where weight helps. But that won’t be in time to consider the Ford when I replace my pickup.

  8. Kelly at January 20, 2014 12:54 am

    A soup can is thicker and u don’t drink from it. When aluminum is thicker it is stronger. And lastly (military) all I have to say.
    I’m game :)

  9. Norm at January 19, 2014 8:53 am

    Ford loses me as a 2014 F150 buyer to replace my 2006 F150. The new 2015 F150 will now replace the 2006 F150.

  10. Floyd at January 17, 2014 9:11 pm

    I think it’s great .
    Anything you can do to hurt sales of china’s general motors


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