The Wall Street Journal has a long article about Ford “working on one of the biggest gambles in its 108-year history: a pickup truck with a largely aluminum body.” Ford will make parts of its next generation F150 from aluminum to save some 700 lbs, which “would enable Ford’s trucks to go farther on a gallon of gasoline, and open the door to other changes, such as the use of smaller engines.” The fear is that some people will think Ford is building a truck for sissies.
In a world where weight is regarded as strength, aluminum is often associated with a beer soda can that any good old boy can crush with one hand and then toss it in an environmentally responsible manner out of the window and in the back of the truck.
Some automotive engineers will tell you that certain aluminum alloys can actually be stronger than high tensile steel. Most importantly, in addition to being lighter than steel, aluminum alloy allows you to build stiffer bodies, important for both driving dynamics and crash-worthiness.
Aluminum also has its drawbacks. It is a bitch to weld. Body repairs usually must be done by specialized shops that charge very special prices.
To get the full benefit of an all-aluminum body, it must be redesigned from the ground up, including completely redesigned production engineering. For instance, the article complains that ”a big headache is the lack of magnetism, requiring powerful and electricity-hungry vacuums to be used to pick up the aluminum sheets for transfer. Assembly plants now use giant magnets to move steel body panels around.” This produces shudders at Volkswagen engineers. There, even steel sheets are moved via vacuum, simply to avoid the marring by the magnets.
The biggest problem is the PR problem. The public could be educated that aluminum can be better than steel – but then, comparisons would have to be made with steel. A company that still makes most of its cars from steel will avoid this comparison. And will have to deal with the misconceptions.