Ford F-150: With More Aluminum Comes New Problems

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One thing was quite apparent at Ford’s (NYSE:F) launch of the redesigned 2015 F-150 at the Detroit auto show last week: The company is quite proud of its new aluminum structure, which affords weight savings of up to 700 pounds in select trims over the previous generation. It has every right to be, too, as the company spent the better part of five years working on the new structure to ensure it would be able to stand up to everything that conventional steel was able to.

However, as with any new product, there are some issues that will need further ironing as the aluminum-clad F-150 starts its rollout. Unfortunately for Ford, though, these issues are more present on the customer side. They take on the form of higher insurance rates and a shortage of body shops that are certified to work on such extensive use of aluminum.

Bloomberg reports that just 10 percent of the 30,000 or so independent repair shops in the United States are certified and meet the training and equipment requirements to work with most aluminum auto-body parts. The news services cites an estimate by Darrell Amberson, chairman of the Automotive Service Association.

Amberson said to Bloomberg that some dealerships will handle body work in-house, but the vast majority is handled by independent parties.

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Ford is reportedly aware that the new material will result in an estimated 10 percent jump in insurance costs but is counting on customers realizing those costs as an exchange for improved fuel economy, towing, and payload thanks to the weight drop. As the best-selling vehicle in the United States, there’s a lot riding on Ford’s high-profile decision to move from steel to aluminum. “You don’t get any more mainstream than the F-150,” Amberson said to Bloomberg.

However, Ford’s truck marketing manager, Doug Scott, says that insurance for the outgoing F-150 was already more affordable than it was for similar coverage for the truck’s competition, and that ultimately, things will even out. “At the end of the day, that’s sort of a wash,” he told the news service. “We’ve spent a lot of time and feel very comfortable that that’s not going to be an inhibitor.”

For repair shops, the issues are far more material and come down to being well-versed in aluminum and knowledgeable about its differences from steel, which has long been the industry at large’s modus operandi. “Repair shops need separate hand tools for aluminum and steel such as wire brushes, grinders and sanders, because corrosion can happen when dissimilar metals come in contact with one another,” Bloomberg reports. “The auto-body repair industry also has less experience with differences in how aluminum springs back from impacts compared with steel.”

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“Aluminum has a very poor memory and it resists straightening attempts,” Jeff Poole, a coordinator for the collision-repair industry training organization I-CAR, said in an April webinar. “Experience really pays dividends here, and this is where we’ve got a learning curve ahead of us.”

According to Ford, 90 percent of its customers live within two hours of a capable repair facility for the new F-150, and 80 percent are within 30 minutes, Scott said to Bloomberg. “We’ve just been waiting for the reveal to unveil a certification process for dealer-owned body shops and the independent channel.”

“This is the biggest bet of the show and maybe one of the biggest bets ever in the car industry,” Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation, said in an interview with the news service“Ford is going to have to execute, and building at that volume in aluminum has never been done in the history of the automobile business. And there are reasons it hasn’t been done: it’s expensive, and it’s complicated and it’s difficult to work with.”

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