When General Motors (GM -2.99%) introduced its all-new Chevy Silverado pickup last year, it left some reviewers scratching their heads. It's a good truck, they said, a definite improvement on the old Silverado, and it should be pretty competitive. But it didn't seem like a big leap forward. GM had clearly chosen to take a conservative, evolutionary approach with its new pickup.
That didn't seem like a bad idea at the time, but it's starting to look like a mistake. Ford (F -2.05%) in January shocked the industry with its all-new 2015 F-150, a pickup that looks evolutionary -- but turned out to have something revolutionary: high-tech aluminum body panels that made the new pickup hundreds of pounds lighter.
That weight savings is a big deal. All other things being equal, a lighter-weight pickup handles better, has more towing capacity, and gets better gas mileage -- a consideration that is going to be critical in the years to come as tighter fuel-economy rules come into play. If Ford's new aluminum F-150s turn out to be durable -- and it's a safe bet that they will -- the new trucks from the Blue Oval will be hard to match.
So what will GM do? Reports are emerging that the General is already reserving big supplies of aluminum for its next all-new Silverado, which might arrive sooner than you'd expect. In this video, Fool contributor John Rosevear explains why Ford is so confident in its aluminum technology and looks at how GM plans to get a step ahead of the new F-150.
A transcript of the video is below.
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John Rosevear: Hey Fools, it's John Rosevear. People in my business like to use the term "game changer"; you see it in headlines all the time, and it really is way overused. At least in the auto business, the game doesn't actually change all that often.
But it's starting to become clear that Ford's all-new F-150 pickup really might be a game changer, with its lightweight aluminum construction it really is kind of in the forefront of looking at how full-sized pickups can remain viable products in an era when fuel-economy regulations are going to get a lot tighter.
The Wall Street Journal reported the other day that General Motors has locked in supply contracts with Alcoa (AA) and Novelis to get aluminum alloy sheet metal for its pickups. You have to do this several years in advance, apparently. According to the Journal report, GM's next-generation pickups will debut in late 2018 and they'll have aluminum bodies. Now, we can say this is just one report, but I should point out that these reporters at The Wall Street Journal are the same ones who broke the story of Ford's move to aluminum for its pickups way back before anyone else, so this is a report that we should pay attention to.
But I wonder if GM is really prepared for the challenges of mass-producing aluminum vehicles: the technology of working with aluminum is just different from working with steel or fiberglass body panels. This was actually a question I asked Ford's Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields when I talked to him last month, and I wish we'd had a camera rolling when he answered because his answer was really interesting.
He pointed out that Ford used to own the Jaguar and Aston Martin brands, and both of those brands started working with aluminum body construction over a decade ago. Now, that kind of construction involves "bonding," which is basically precision, high-tech gluing of the aluminum panels. It's different, and it's complicated. What Mark Fields said was that Ford as a company learned a lot from the experience of making Aston Martins and Jaguars out of high-tech aluminum, and even though Ford has since sold those companies, they retained a lot of that expertise within the company and they've applied it to the production processes for the new F-150.
Now, according to this Wall Street Journal report, GM thinks that they've got some advanced welding techniques, in fact they have a patent on this, that will let them make aluminum-bodied pickups that are lighter and stronger and easier to assemble than Ford's. They're using this patented process to make aluminum body panels already; there's a Cadillac hood that's aluminum and a few other pieces here and there. They haven't yet made a whole vehicle using it, but they're clearly setting out on that path.
Thanks for watching, and Fool on.