The Dark Side of a Lighter F-150: Ford Gambles on Safety
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“Simplify, then add lightness.” This was the refrain of legendary automotive engineer Colin Chapman. The company he founded on that ethos, appropriately named Lotus, produced some of the most celebrated racing and road cars. However, at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, Lotus’ new executives announced five heavy, complicated new models that will reposition it somewhere between Porsche and Aston Martin.
Around that time, another firm was establishing itself as the champion for airy automobiles. Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) announced plans to add hundreds of pounds of lightness to all of its models, in addition to a partnership with Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) to economically mass-produce carbon fiber components. Lightening its cars will yield many performance benefits, but Ford’s primary focus (pun intended) is boosting fuel economy. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will rise sharply in the next few decades; small cars like Ford’s Fiesta must return 45 MPG by 2018. And consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental sustainability.
The first model scheduled for major surgery is the F-150 pickup truck. The Ford F-150 has been the best-selling automobile in the United States for many years (though combined sales of General Motors' Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are higher). The F-series was also responsible for a third of Ford’s global operating profit last last year. With big numbers come high stakes. Ford understands that its plan to cut some 750 pounds from the vehicle by substituting aluminum for steel in body panels and other non-chassis components is enormously risky.
By reputation, truck buyers resist change, and the truck archetype dates back a century: body-on-frame construction; simple, high-displacement engine; bulletproof everything. Consumers perceive steel as a lot more bulletproof than aluminum. The alloys Ford intends to use are probably stronger by weight than the outgoing steel, but assuredly weaker by volume, so components will have to be thicker and larger, creating design challenges. Aluminum is more expensive and much more difficult to work with than steel; added thickness means added manufacturing complexity.
The aluminum F-150 will probably cost more, only strengthening Ford’s commitment to match the current truck’s performance. Even a perceived reduction in the F-150’s capability or durability would imperil the Ford brand---and the company itself---which is why the update will include more muscular styling.
Dearborn has rolled the dice before. A couple of years ago it gave the F-150 engine lineup a much-needed overhaul. One of the four new offerings was an EcoBoost V6. EcoBoost is Ford’s family of small-displacement, turbocharged, direct-injected engines. Promising high economy and uncompromised power, they have been well received by industry observers and consumers.
When Ford introduced the new engine lineup, it highlighted the powerful, innovative turbo-6. Asking pickup buyers in the market for V8 capability to consider an “EcoBoost V6” was a gamble---one that paid handsomely. The engine has been a tremendous success, increasing F-150 sales. Given this triumph, adding lightness seems like a logical next step.
But lightweight has a dark side. CAFE standards have driven reductions in vehicle size and curb weight. Although the data and scientific findings are mixed, thanks to the complexity and volatility of the issues involved, it is likely that such reductions have, in net, cost tens of thousands of lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has repeatedly expressed such concern. Studies by the National Research Council and Harvard Center for Risk Analysis have concluded that CAFE standards contribute to thousands of traffic fatalities annually. There is also evidence that a lighter, smaller vehicle is less safe in a crash even if it is the only one involved.
As troubling as these findings are, their validity is uncertain. Passenger safety includes factors too myriad to name and correspondingly difficult to isolate for study. A lighter car is more maneuverable, which may make it safer overall---and collisions are only documented if they happen. How aforementioned factors apply to a 5,000-pound truck vis-a-vis a 3,000-pound sedan is likewise unclear.
Nevertheless, Ford should seriously consider the potential safety implications of shedding nearly half a ton from its most successful, lucrative vehicle. Safety is central to Ford’s brand identity. The company already has to convince consumers that aluminum will not make its trucks more flimsy. Concerns that it will make them more dangerous are not far removed. Even if the change leaves safety demonstrably unaffected, or enhanced, Ford must guard vigilantly against the perception that it is compromising consumer safety. The Firestone tire fiasco became such a big media story and damaged Ford so badly because the Explorer SUV it centered around was immensely popular. The potential backlash of a safety scandal involving the most popular vehicle in the United States is almost unimaginable, particularly for the company whose fortunes rest on its success.
@TheGattoniCelli has no financial interest in or regarding the firms mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.