GM Looks to Copy Ford's Aluminum Bodied 2015 F-150, but Will It Be Too Late?

Ford is about to shake things up in the most important and profitable vehicle segment in America: Full-size trucks. GM will copy the move, but will it be too late?

Feb 22, 2014 at 10:00AM

Ford's 2015 F-150 will face challenges, but the reward could be worth it. Source: Ford.

Make no mistake: For Detroit automakers, the full-size truck segment is hands down the most vital for their success. Ford's (NYSE:F) F-Series and General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevy Silverado are the top two selling vehicles in America, and analysts estimate the trucks bring in more than half of their respective profits. While Ford has had the sales edge lately, things are about to get completely shaken up with its risky and more revolutionary approach to its 2015 F-150. Ford made its decision to be the first to switch to an aluminum body and tossed the ball in GM's court; how would its cross-town rival respond? We now have our answer.

Copy cat!
As mentioned earlier, with the F-Series and Silverado being the No. 1 and No. 2 selling vehicles in the nation, it poses a unique problem for automakers that are required to improve the miles per gallon on over their entire fleet of vehicles. That makes the large, and less fuel-efficient, trucks even more important during their redesigns.

While GM's Chevy Silverado took a more evolutionary approach with its Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks, Ford opted to be a first mover and shake things up with an aluminum bodied F-150. It's a move that could cost the company dearly if it can't convince consumers to buy into the idea. Or if it executes on production and convinces consumers that the aluminum doesn't make it less of a truck, it will set the stage for even more dominating sales chart performances over the next few years. Now that Ford has taken the first step and has replaced as much as 700 pounds of its 2015 F-150 with aluminum instead of steel, GM has decided it will copy the move.

The Wall Street Journal reported that General Motors is now working on a largely aluminum-bodied pickup truck for late 2018. That means the next-generation design by General Motors will copy Ford's move to aluminum, and the company recently locked in aluminum supply contracts with Alcoa and Novelis, according to the WSJ.

For General Motors, one benefit in allowing Ford to take the first move is to learn from its crosstown rival's mistakes.

Mark Reuss, GM's product chief, spoke about his interest in Ford's aluminum-bodied F-150. "I want to get my hands on it," Reuss told reporters, according to Automotive News. "I'm going to be looking at how much aluminum is in it. 'What are the panels? ... How are they constructed?' I'm going to look at what they advertise as the weight savings from it. Then I'm going to go back and do some math."

Absolutely nobody in the automotive industry has worked with aluminum in a production volume this size, and the risks are enormous as the metal is more difficult to work with. The risks extend outside of Ford's factories as well. Currently less than 10% of more than 30,000 repair shops in the U.S. are certified to work with most aluminum auto body parts, according to Bloomberg. It will cost dealerships and independent body shops to purchase different tools to work with aluminum body parts. This could cause customers potential hassles when needing body repairs. Ford believes this won't be an issue by the time its 2015 F-150 hits the dealerships and expects body shops to jump on board quickly. 

The upshot
The good news for Ford's loyal truck buyers is that the company's CEO has worked with aluminum on large scales before, only it was in the aviation industry with Boeing. The folks at the Blue Oval feel confident enough they can pull execute this aluminum-bodied truck a full design ahead of its crosstown rivals -- and Ford might be well rewarded in accelerated sales for its risk.

Some are estimating the weight reduction could boost the next-generation F-150's fuel economy by as much as 20%. That's huge. If Ford can execute its launch of the 2015 F-150 and minimize the incremental costs of working with aluminum on the production line, it will be one of the best decisions the company has made in years.

It will have roughly four years of a head start on the next major full-size pickup with an aluminum design; that's a lot of time to market the improved fuel economy and the unchanged Ford tough performance to customers. If Ford's 2015 F-150 is a success, expect it to boost sales and send the Silverado to an even further distant second place.

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Daniel Miller owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors and owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.

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