Might aluminium vehicles for the masses be a game-changer for emissions reduction? Ford is about to roll-out a revolutionary version of its best-selling pickup truck

Every 41 seconds, an American consumer buys a Ford F-150 pickup – a behemoth that’s been the US’s best selling truck for 37 straight years. Considering that it manages only 17 miles per gallon, that’s not been so great for the environment. But by December 2014, it just might be much better.

American automakers have not been known as a fount of innovation when it comes to designing efficient vehicles. Consumers on this side of the pond have always liked their vehicles throaty and muscular, the legacy of our wide-open plains and Wild West sensibility. Before oil shocks and climate change reality sank in, that worked. Now it doesn’t.

When Democrats took control of Congress and the White House in 2008, and with oil prices rapidly rising, they pushed through legislation to address what most people, even sceptical Republicans, agreed was a problem: Americans were too energy indulgent.

“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” Barack Obama said in January 2009, when he rolled out the new fuel standards, known as Cafe – corporate average fuel economy – that he had negotiated with the auto industry.

There was the usual carping from small government conservatives and dour predictions from the auto industry cognoscenti. “Obama’s Cafe Fuel Economy Standards to Create Fleet of Tiny, Expensive Vehicles,” bemoaned Car and Driver magazine.

Consistent standard

But the auto executives were on board. They were relieved that instead of facing different standards in dozens of states – a messy and expensive hodgepodge – they now had consistent mileage guideposts. But in reality, the Big Three automakers had little choice. Chrysler and General Motors were on the federal bailout dole at the time, and while Ford had resisted a government loan its future was precarious.

The Cafe standards loomed like a sword of Damocles. Desperation and innovation combined to work wonders. By making minor tweaks they had resisted through lobbying and court filings for decades, the percentage of total available models in the US getting at least 30 miles per gallon rose from one to nine; only three cars, down from nine, got less than 15mpg.

Electric vehicles began to blossom like daffodils in the spring, but sales remained modest and the impact on lowering each company’s average fuel economy was limited. And almost all of the improvement had come from cars. The real challenge: rethinking gasoline powered conventional trucks, which have the worst mileage ratings.

Although new technologies hadn’t yet made their way into showrooms, panicked automakers crashed research on low-fuel variable transmissions, starter-alternators, direct fuel injection, regenerative braking and high-powered electronics to revamp engines. The race was on, and those that didn’t meet government mandated standards faced stiff fines.

Surprising the sceptics, fuel efficiency sped along, prompting Obama to up the ante in 2012. With industry backing and broad popular support holding, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would require the US auto fleet to average 54.5mpg by 2025 – about double the requirement for 2010.

It was an election year, and Republican presidential candidate Milt Romney, egged on by climate change sceptics, called fuel efficiency innovations “unproven technology”, and pledged to kill the new standards if he won.

“I will get the EPA out of its efforts to manage carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and trucks,” Romney said in stump speeches.

Where are we?

By spring 2013, 24% of American vehicles were already at 2017 standards and 12 models – 9% – met 2015 limits. But the low hanging fruit has been picked. What about heavy, gas guzzling pickup trucks? These are where the big profits are for the US industry because of their through-the-roof margins.

General Motors had decided to focus its efforts on engine technologies, boosting the fuel efficiency of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks. Chrysler had rolled out variable transmissions and is expected to introduce a diesel engine for its popular Ram trucks. Ford had introduced widely praised turbocharged, direct-injected EcoBoost engines for its car fleet but it kept mum about trucks.

That changed in January 2014. The first months of each year are runway walk time for the auto industry, and it’s no exaggeration to say that fuel economy and Ford’s revolutionary F-150 are the talk of the town. Ford announced that by autumn 2014, 95% of the body of its flagship vehicle will be made from high tech, expensive aluminium, shaving over 300kg from its brawny 2,200 kg figure.

Ford is under no illusion; this is a dice roll. The F-150 is an American icon and cash cow, with each vehicle generating an average profit of $10,000 and more than one-third of Ford’s $80bn in annual revenue. Its outsized profits subsidise many fuel efficient but unprofitable models.

“This is a critical redesign, not just for Ford but for the entire full-size truck market as we enter an era of rapidly increasing fuel efficiency standards,” writes Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book, which monitors the industry.

Sceptical buyers

The F-150 faces questions about cost and durability, as well as repair expenses. The target market, some suburbanites but mostly farmers and industrial users, are picky and demanding. It’s fair to say that global warming Armageddon may not be on their radar.

“Ford needs to establish the F-150 as a future-friendly model that will keep pace with government regulations while still meeting the demands of serious truck buyers,” Brauer notes.

Aluminium is common in aircraft. There are other aluminium cars, such as the limited selling Ford designed Jaguar and select Land Rovers as well as the techno-toy Tesla, the latter selling for $70,000 and up. The bottom of the line 2015 F-150 is expected to be in showrooms for under $25,000.

The redesign sprang from a crisis challenge by Ford CEO Alan Mulally issued in the midst of the “Great Recession” in 2009. It marks the breathtaking transfer of cutting edge technology in materials, alternative fuels, and safety and digital gadgets into the mainstream. At least for the moment, the auto industry and the American public that adores cars and trucks are wowed.

“The combination of substantial weight loss and the promise of better fuel economy is a magical thing,” wrote Truck Trend executive editor Allyson Harwood.

“It’s a landmark moment,” Jack Nerad, editorial director at Kelley Blue Book, told the Dallas News. “I think the others in the segment will follow suit, but they won’t be fast followers. It simply costs too much to do quickly. It will likely be a unique situation where one vehicle has a different material and a lighter weight.”

Mulally vows that Ford, the No 2 US automaker, will begin introducing aluminium throughout its portfolio of vehicles. The corporation’s chief engineer expects to make up the premium by reducing costs because there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down engine and other components that won’t have to move as much weight.

Despite rampant scepticism, fuel economy is emerging as a competitive battleground and it is likely to reset values for new and used vehicles in the years ahead. The F-150’s fuel rating is expected to improve by more than 50%, skipping past Ram’s 25mpg rating to become the world’s most fuel-efficient large pickup truck.

European and Japanese automakers are already testing aluminium models, so more environment-friendly innovation is in the works.

Jon Entine is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University and a sustainability consultant.

american automakers  emissions reduction  Ford  innovation  transport  vehicles 

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