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Forget the Aluminum F-150, Ford’s Next Move is Truly Eco-Friendly

Real wood interior? Photo credit: Flickr/Nicholas A. Tonelli

Automakers are racing to meet an aggressive deadline for future fuel efficiency standards. By 2025 automakers are required to produce vehicles that can achieved 54.5 miles per gallon. That has companies like Ford  (NYSE: F  )  taking out heavier metals like steel and replacing it with lighter aluminum in its wildly popular Ford F-150 pickup. Ford, however, is not stopping there in its effort to produce greener vehicles, as its next move has it adding renewable wood fibers to the 2014 Lincoln MKX. 

Growing a sustainable advantage
Ford went on a three-year search to find a lighter replacement for fiberglass. Its collaboration with Weyerhaeuser  (NYSE: WY  )  and Johnson Controls  (NYSE: JCI  )  believes that it has developed the ideal solution by using natural fibers that are harvested from trees. These all-natural, renewable fibers replace traditional glass fibers to create what is being called "cellulose reinforced polypropylene," though Weyerhaeuser sell the product under the THRIVE brand name. 

This has the potential to be a game-changing development for two reasons. First, natural fibers from harvested trees are renewable and in many cases the fibers will be harvested from byproducts that would otherwise be wasted. Further, the new fiberglass replacement is 6% lighter than standard fiberglass, which will help to increase fuel efficiency.

Building a thriving product
Working with Weyerhaeuser to create a sustainable wood-based replacement product made a lot of sense for Ford. Weyerhaeuser isn't just one of the largest forest product companies in the world, but it is also internationally recognized for its sustainability practices. Because of this, the company can ensure that it can meet future demand as it plants more trees than it harvests.

The renewable nature of the product hints at its long-term potential. However, Weyerhaeuser sees THRIVE composites initially being used to make automotive parts and household goods. After that its future uses could include office furniture, kitchenware, consumer appliances and industry goods. Because of the broad potential applications of the product, Ford thinks it can eventually be used for exterior and under-the-hood applications as it grows to become a greater portion of each car.

Weyerhaeuser and Ford see such a far reaching future for THRIVE due to the product's combination of economical production, low mass, strength and flexibility. Further, the product can be made faster and with less energy than traditional fiberglass materials. 

Ford's drive to go green
Ford is doing everything it can to reduce the weight of its vehicles as that is one of the keys to fuel efficiency. A recent study showed that a 10% reduction in a vehicle's weight yields a 3%-4% reduction in fuel consumption. This is why we are seeing Ford focus on reducing the weight of its vehicles. 

Lighter metals like aluminum are providing the most immediate boost. It can reduce the weight of an average midsize car by nearly 12% and those saving really add up in larger vehicles like trucks. For example, Ford was able to shave a few hundred pounds off of the F-150 thanks to aluminum. That change, along with a new engine has the potential to save Ford F-150 customers a staggering 115 million gallons of fuel. That's one-tenth of one percent of the entire country's fuel consumption. That's why it is easy to see how these moves to add lighter materials like aluminum and wood fibers will have a meaningful impact on fuel consumption in the U.S.

Investor takeaway
Ford is making some gutsy moves. However, the data is pretty compelling that these moves will really translate into real tangible fuel savings for Ford customers. That puts Ford on the pathway to a pretty compelling future as its drive to go green should yield substantial profits for its investors.

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On January 26, 2014, at 6:15 PM, wjcoffman wrote:

    Wonder if the automakers are paying attention to the impact their lighter vehicles towing capability. I'm not referring to power but rather the mass of the towing vehicle compared to the load being towed. A smaller, lighter weight pickup is often able to tow the heavy boat or RV but it sure isn't as stable a platform when buffeted by wind or 18 wheelers going down the interstate for example.

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2014, at 9:23 AM, McSniperliger wrote:

    I have a 99 F150 330 CID V8 extended cab long bed 4x4. I've used this truck hauling loads a bit outside its safe rated capacity but at the time and this time I don'town a larger truck. No load on it and a full tank of gas and its right around 6,500lbs. Right now with 30 gust of wind, it gets tossed around like a toy...a lighter weight truck in the same class would get tossed around even more.

    Its well worth its weight in gold and considering it is almost at 250k miles with no rebuilds I'd say that it has held up fairly well too even for being in the rust belt.

    Only 2 advantages Aluminum has, lighter weight and rust resistant. About it. It'll be more expensive for body work to be done and considering the cost compare to steel is about 1.5x.

    In 1997 when Ford redesigned the F150 they knew they would take a hit in sales. It was a radical change back then and its no different now. People need to learn that the EPA has been killing vehicles in the US for years...needing stricter emissions and fuel economy is what's killing the American car and truck and manufacturers are trying to keep up with the ever changing rule. By 2025 all trucks must be getting a minimum of 54.5mpg combined.

    The truck that is ahead right now in MPG is the 2014 ram 1500 with the 3.0L V6 VM Motori turbo diesel with around 25-30mpg...that engine has some torque behind it which newer gas engines are starting to lack.

    I probably won't buy anew truck in the future. Right now I am saving up to buy a 2005 F250 S/D gas so I can convert it to diesel with a Cummins 24 valve (pre-common rail) so I don't have tomess around with new emissions. its not easy todo,but I need a reliable truck that will get better mileage while towing lumber and steel around.

    Ford is willing to take the risk,they've acknowledged this months ago and even last year when they unveiled the Atlas concept truck. It still retains the body on frame design, just uses aluminum body but a high strength steel frame. Towing capacity each generation goes up by a couple hundred pounds or so.

    Just remember UPS, FedEx, USPS and other entities have been using Aluminum box trucks for years and a lot of the original ones are still on the road and all they do is the regular maintenance and occasionally put in a new/rebuild diesel and transmission and they keep running them.

    I've done my home work and I know what fits my needs. What they offer in new trucks is a lot more stuff that will go wrong and cost a ton of money to that I don't have. So if its not there I won't have to replace it.

    Another thing is this new F150 is offered with a smaller 2.7L V6 Eco-Boost engine. They may or may no have fixed the original 3.5L Eco-Boost problems on this one or they might have. One added expense is the dual turbochargers...each one costs about $600 or so and won't be easy to fix. One of the problems Eco-Boost has is with its CAC (Charged Air Cooler/Intercooler) which cools the exhaust gases as its being forced into the engine because cooler air is much better for combustion but Ford was having issues with it in the previous years so be careful.

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2014, at 8:50 PM, Justinf250 wrote:

    I think the weight loss is great, I drive a 97 f250 HD 7.5l that has tool boxes, it weighs in at 7200 lbs, it goes like heck, but doesn't like corners, or stopping and it loves gas. Idrove around in a 13 that was much lighter and the handling characteristics were drastically different. I'm sure the new f150 will handle awsome, but I'm wondering if a trailer will jerk it around the road

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Matt DiLallo

Matthew is a Senior Energy and Materials Specialist with The Motley Fool. He graduated from the Liberty University with a degree in Biblical Studies and a Masters of Business Administration. You can follow him on Twitter for the latest news and analysis of the energy and materials industries:

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