Case Study

Lighter Vehicles Bring Fuel Savings—and Higher Sales

For John Tritz, an engineer at an oilfield equipment company, more drilling for oil means a more secure paycheck. But Tritz would prefer to buy less oil with the dollars that come out of its own pocket. That’s why he traded in his Toyota Tundra pickup truck for a 2015 Ford F-150 pickup.

Thanks to a risky $2 billion-plus decision by Ford to build the F-150 body from aluminum instead of the traditional steel, the 2015 Ford truck weighs 700 pounds less than the previous year’s model. By the simple laws of physics, less weight means using less gas.

So even though he bought the loaded King Ranch model with a big V-8 engine, Tritz gets 19 miles per gallon commuting to work in “brutal Houston traffic,” he says. “If the Toyota got 15 mpg, I was ecstatic.”

Tritz’s improved fuel economy mirrors the 2-4 miles per gallon jump in Ford’s lighter 2015 F-150 models, compared to the 2014 versions. And while a few additional miles per gallon per truck may not sound like much, “it has a huge impact,” says Jay Baron, president and CEO of the non-profit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leader of CAR’s Coalition for Automotive Lightweighting Materials.

For one thing, a four mpg increase brings a far greater drop in gasoline use when the starting point is 15 miles per gallon, compared to, say, 40 miles per gallon, when both vehicles are driven the same distance. For annual travel of 12,000 miles a year, going from 15 mpg to 19 mpg will save 168 gallons—while going from 40 mpg to 44 mpg will save only 27 gallons per year.

Equally important, the fuel economy of pickup trucks really matters because there are so many of them. In fact, the Ford F-150 is the most popular vehicle in America, with sales of 780,354 in 20151. Moreover, next two top selling vehicles are pickups. Of the 258 million registered cars and light trucks in the U.S., about 18 percent are pickup trucks. That means there are more than 46 million on U.S. roads hauling supplies, pulling trailers, getting the groceries or bringing the kids to school.

So do the math. If every pickup truck went from 15 to 19 miles per gallon, that 168 gallons saved each year adds up to an annual savings of 7.7 billion gallons of gas saved a year. At $2.50 per gallon of gasoline, that would leave an extra $19 billion dollars in the pockets of owners like Tritz. “Heck yes, it saves me money,” he says. That’s money he can spend on fishing gear or eating out, pumping the dollars back into the local economy. Plus, his new dark gray-green F-150 handles better than his previous trucks and does a better job hauling his boat to his lake house.

And still more gains are possible. Because pickup truck buyers typically care more about brawn than fuel economy, Ford actually hedged its bets, using some of the weight savings to boost the towing and hauling capacity for each new model, compared to the 2014 versions. If regulators or the market demand dictate further efficiency improvements, “Ford could convert that extra towing capacity back to fuel economy,” says Baron. Higher mileage is expected anyway when Ford introduces a planned, more efficient 10-speed transmission.

The Ford F-150 redesign shows how companies can seize business opportunities on the path to the clean energy economy, taking risks now to avoid bigger risks later. It illustrates the relentless pace of innovation in materials and manufacturing that has brought—and continues to bring—gains to smart phones, wind turbines and countless other products and services. It shows the crucial role of regulations and policy. And it’s just one of the myriad possible steps, from public transit and changes in urban land use patterns to cars powered by biofuels or electricity, that can bring major reductions in the amount of fossil fuel that Americans burn to get around.

Before he took over as CEO of Ford in 2006, Alan Mulally was intimately familiar with the efficiency gains that come from lighter weight. At Boeing, he had pushed a risky (and ultimately very successful) move to build Boeing’s new airplane, the 787, from carbon composites instead of heavier aluminum. When he arrived at Ford, he wondered why cars are so heavy, insiders recall. By 2009, he decided to put Ford’s top cash cow, the F-150 pickup, on a diet.

“Our objective was to find materials that allowed us to design the truck to be as tough—or tougher—than the current model, yet could help it be hundreds of pounds lighter for better capability and fuel economy,” explains Peter Friedman, Manager of the Manufacturing Research Department at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

The key material: aluminum. To use it for the truck body, though, “Ford had to change their entire manufacturing process,” says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. The standard joining method—spot welding—wasn’t possible, for both technical and intellectual property reasons. So Ford developed methods for joining parts with adhesives and rivets. That actually brought further weight gains, since bonded panels are stronger than those attached with spot welds, requiring less metal overall. Ford also depended on advances in design and simulation software to design tooling capable of stamping panels from aluminum, which is more finicky than steel.

Making the switch was “a very calculated and informed risk,” says Ford CEO Mark Fields. Experts say Ford may have been the only one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers capable of pulling it off, because of its previous experience with aluminum as owner of Jaguar.

Now, the gamble appears to be paying off. Despite production glitches and higher manufacturing costs, the F-150 remained the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. in 2015, and sales rose 7% in the first four months of 2016—to 256,895—over the same period in 2015. “I think Ford has done a fabulous job with this,” says Cole. “It was a very bold move and one of the most impressive steps I have seen in a long time.”

But innovation isn’t stopping there. By using scanning electron microscopes to understand the nanostructure of metal and by tinkering with the amounts of alloying agents like zinc and magnesium, Ford supplier Novelis has developed aluminum that’s two to three times stronger than the 6000 series metal in the F-150 body. Meanwhile, steelmakers are responding to the competitive threat by developing their own higher-strength, lighter weight materials—up to 100 times stronger than just a few decades ago. In fact, one lesser-known part of the F-150 story is a steel frame that’s 60 pounds lighter than in the previous model, thanks to better steel.

The materials race is also getting a new challenger, carbon fiber composites. Growing experience with carbon fiber in airplanes, bicycles, golf clubs and a few high-end cars has brought the price down from more than $30 a pound to less than $8 over the past decade, and shortened the time for making parts from more than half an hour to a minute or two. That’s enabled BMW to offset the extra weight of the batteries in its electric i3 model with a lightweight carbon fiber structure, and to make extensive use of both composites and aluminum in its latest 7-Series models. Add in countless other improvements in engines, tires, drivetrains and other parts, and “right now there is a full-court press on every automobile technology that offers better fuel economy,” says Cole.

What’s more, each lighter, more efficient component contributes to a virtuous cycle. A lighter body makes it possible to use a smaller, lighter engine (or a smaller, lighter battery pack in an electric car) to get the same performance, for example, which reduces overall vehicle weight even further.

The larger lesson from the Ford F-150 and other vehicles is that, as with other chapters in the clean energy economy story, we already have the technology to make significant—even dramatic—reductions in fossil fuel use. Moreover, innovation wizardry and the journey down the learning curve continues to bring better and cheaper solutions, making it possible to envision a cost-effective transition to all-electric cars.

But what is driving the transformation now and in the future? With gasoline prices low, right now, the main answer is regulation. Ford’s expensive and risky investment gives the company a big competitive advantage in the race to meet higher corporate fuel economy standards—which now scheduled to rise to an average level of 54.5 miles per gallon for the 2025 model year. Water down those standards, however, and the drive to higher vehicle efficiency could lurch to a halt unless a jump in oil prices—or other policy tools, such as a price on carbon—offer new market incentives for efficiency improvements.

View footnotes

  1. Wayland, M., and M. Burden. 2016. “Auto industry sets all-time sales record in 2015,” The Detroit News, January 5, available at

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