General Motors strategically embraces aluminum trucks

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It’s marketing 101 – take your opponent’s perceived strengths and portray them as weaknesses.

Ford’s decision for the 2015 model year to replace steel in F-150 pickup body panels with aluminum was a huge success. Shaving weight meant towing, payload, and fuel efficiency improved. Across town, General Motors’ marketing folks responded with ads showing how rugged their steel-bedded Chevy Silverado pickups were.

In commercials, front-end loaders dumped boulders into the beds of pickups, leading to dents and tears in the Ford aluminum panels and dusty-but-unharmed steel Silverado pickup beds.

The clear message – tough steel makes a tough truck, not recycled beer cans.

So why does the 2019 Silverado have more aluminum than the outgoing model?

Throughout the past decade, weight has become Enemy No. 1 of nearly every automotive and commercial truck. In consumer cars, less weight means better fuel economy. For trucks, the lower the weight of the body, the more capability companies can offer in towing, pulling, and carrying. Ford’s aluminum-bodied F-150 didn’t succeed by offering minor fuel-economy improvements. The pickup dominated the market because its working statistics improved.

With the Silverado, GM is splitting the difference for now. The truck’s hood has been made from aluminum for several generations, but the 2019 model also features aluminum tailgates and side doors. Pierre Labat, vice president of global automotive for Novelis Aluminum, discusses the growing use of aluminum for hang-on panels such as doors in the 2018 outlook story, starting on page 16. The Silverado’s bed is made from advanced high-strength steel, offering durability figures that will be sure to show up in future TV commercials, while still cutting vehicle weight.

The result – GM’s 2019 trucks are 400 lb lighter than the outgoing models. That’s short of the 732 lb savings Ford earned from going all aluminum, but it should be enough to boost those essential work numbers.

A few years ago, industry rumors had GM following Ford’s lead – going aluminum for nearly the entire truck body. Did the commercials back designers into a corner by convincing some buyers that steel is better? Was the decision entirely cost based (steel is still about one-third the price of aluminum)? Or is the steel bed an interim step?

Leaked reports from GM’s design studio have the automaker experimenting with light, ultra-strong composites for future truck beds. Honda’s Ridgeline pickup boasts a composite bed that’s lighter than metal options, corrosion free, cleanable with a hose, and easy to fill with ice to cool beverages while tailgating.

For suppliers, the takeaway is clear but far from simple. Lightweighting is still a driving force in automotive design, but there are many ways to shave pounds. It’s not just a question of steel, aluminum, or composites; virtually every future vehicle will be an increasingly complex mix of low-cost, lightweight, and high-performance materials. That’s going to require everyone in the industry, from suppliers to those of us in the trade press, to be versed in a wider array of options.