Monday, January 13, 2014

Ford: Aluminum Can.

Automakers have all been asking themselves the same question lately: what magic bullet can help us meet ever-increasing fuel economy standards? Ford's answer? "Aluminum can."
There are many different solutions to reduce fuel economy. Aerodynamics, engine design, improvements in fuel quality and composition, fuel sources, vehicle size, to name a few. Another very important factor is vehicle weight, and Ford has been working hard to pull a maximum of weight from their biggest seller, the F-150 pickup truck.

The most popular vehicle in the US for over 3 decades now, the F-150 is a common sight all over North America. The full-size pickup truck is a North American particularity, as most other regions in the world make do with either smaller pickups, or forego pickups (with an open bed) entirely and use instead vans and wagons as utility vehicles.
Rumours have been circulating for some time that Ford was seriously studying replacing significant amounts of steel in their trucks with steel, and apparently it's going to happen. The next F-150 has been shown at the 2014 Detroit North American International Auto Show, and it has been reported that close to 750 lbs (340 kg) have been shaved off, which represents nearly 15% of the weight of the current truck. The improvement in fuel economy will be drastic.

Aluminum has several significant advantages to steel (including weight, corrosion resistance, and formability), and has already been used in the auto industry (the F-150's current hood, for example, is already made out of aluminum). Where Ford is going to meet resistance is with the traditional pickup truck buyer who associates aluminum with soda pop cans, aluminum foil, and other light, flimsy uses. Ford markets their trucks under the "Built Ford Tough" slogan, and are really going to have to make en effort to prove that their new lighter trucks are as tough as ever.
My current job is in the automotive industry with a company that makes aluminum parts (heat exchangers), so it's easy to understand why I find this news so exciting. I touch aluminum every day, and know its strengths and weaknesses. Technically speaking, aluminum does corrode, actually faster than steel. The advantage of aluminum corrosion (aluminum oxide) is that it forms very quickly and in a thin, tightly-adhering layer, which then acts as a barrier to further corrosion attack in wet and salty environments. Steel corrosion (what we typically call rust) is loose and voluminous. It easily flakes off the surface of the metal, and allows further corrosion to remove more material until you have a hole in your fender, for example.

While the resistance of aluminum to corrosion is a big plus, it is not without complications. Salt (like you find in the air near the sea or in places that salt the roads in winter) in the presence of water accelerates corrosion in aluminum. So does the presence of another metal, such as steel. If a future F-150 owner were to, for example, use steel rivets to attach something to the side of their truck, the steel would provoke very rapid corrosion in the adjacent aluminum. As a result, the paint on the new F-150 will be an integral part of the trucks corrosion defence system. Ford has been studying and testing aluminum parts for years and years with major aluminum suppliers, and I have no doubt that they have worked all of these bugs out, but it will be interesting to see how the trucks will hold up over time.
I applaud Ford for their bold gamble, and I look forward to seeing one in person. Lets raise a can (aluminum, of course) and cheers to this automotive revolution!


  1. All of this aluminum talk reminds me of a wonderful old car I saw years back... it's in a museum not too far away... I think I need to go for a visit and get a few pictures and some information, because, as you'll see, while Ford is getting credit for this advance in automotive engineering, aluminum cars are anything but new...

  2. Was surprised to see Ford mentioning the new F-150 on their Ford France Facebook page! The F-150 is not available here, and as far as I know won't be with this new generation either... but I guess they're pretty proud of it and want people everywhere to know!


Any comments?