The Trouble With Weight-Saving Technologies

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While Ram, Ford, and GM truck enthusiasts are falling all over themselves about turbochargers, baby diesels, and active grille shutters, there are much bigger technological advances being developed by truck manufacturers.

Specifically, I’m talking about weight loss – the single-best way to improve truck fuel economy without resorting to complicated fuel-saving technologies or powertrains that don’t quite deliver the power or fuel economy promised.

Weight Savings Promised, But Still Not Delivered

For years, we’ve heard that Ford and GM are pursuing weight-reduction technologies that will replace steel frame members and steel body panels in their trucks. We’ve heard about everything from carbon-fiber reinforced composites to magnesium alloys to regular-old aluminum. All these technologies are “just around the corner,”  yet neither GM’s 2014 Silverado or Ford’s Atlas concept seem likely to feature any substantial weight saving features, not to mention the Ram 1500.

Of course, Toyota isn’t exactly setting the world on fire in terms of innovation (at least not yet), as their idea of upgrading the Tundra was changing the grille and adding more premium packages.

Still, weight-saving features ARE coming to full-size trucks, it’s just that there are a few issues to overcome. Specifically:

  1. Manufacturing costs. When it comes to introducing carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (aka carbon-fiber composites), the biggest issue is making these parts cheaply. We’re starting to see some of the premium manufacturers (Mercedes-Benz and BMW are two contemporary examples) use carbon-fiber composites, but they’re the only ones who can afford to do so right now.
  2. Corrosion. This article about Acura’s use of steel and aluminum to make a door panel does a great job of explaining just how much automakers must fear corrosion when mixing dissimilar metals. To wit: Aluminum and steel have a difference in electrical potential. If you mix that difference in potential with water, you get “bimetallic corrosion” – and parts disintegrate. As you can imagine, making a water-tight door structure isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when the two metals expand and contract at different rates.
  3. Design tools are still in their infancy. When automakers design a steel frame, it’s relatively easy to determine how thick the steel should be at specific points in the frame (emphasis on relatively). Using an iterative process, software can test and re-test thousands of variables to come up with an ideal thickness for a specific section, then move on to a different section, re-iterate, etc. until the frame is optimized.However, if you try to use these computer tools to model composite materials, you get a lot of confusing results. While this particular challenge is being overcome, the bigger point here is that automakers know steel backwards and forwards, so designing with steel is easier than designing with aluminum, composite, magnesium alloys, etc.

So, if you’re wondering why the most recent trucks from Ram, GM, and Toyota don’t feature any major weight savings (and why we’re not likely to see that technology in the next F-150 or Nissan’s Titan), now you know.

Still, keep your eye on this technology. The first automaker to figure out a way to affordably trim 500+ lbs from their full-size pickup is going to gain a tremendous advantage over the rest of the market.

Filed Under: Auto News


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  1. mendonsy says:

    The easiest way to trim 500 lbs from a current pickup is to throw away all of the CARB mandated emissions junk that doesn’t do anything except add cost and reduce fuel mileage.

    • Mendonsy,

      LOL, I like that your comments always come up with the “simplest” solution.


    • Larry says:

      You are about the only person who gets it.

      Get rid of all the automatic actuators, electric window motors and the wires which are needed. Electric door locks and all the rest of the junk need to go.

      As fast as weight is removed it is added right back on with all the junk which is added or mandated.

      We need trucks not touring cars.

      Someone please get back to making real trucks.

      Just the other day someone told me he was going to wait for an aluminum body F150 truck because it would not rust out like steel. He thinks aluminum does not corrode. When I told him aluminum in contact with steel would corrode faster then the current trucks he did not believe me. I told him to clamp a steel and aluminum bar together, put them in jar of salt water and come back in 6 months.

      All this stuff is driving the price of trucks to the moon and the maintenance costs are going right along.

      Look at the high power F150 V6 eco boost. Over the life of that truck it will cost much more then a basic F150 or F250 with a low RPM V8. I can’t wait to hear peoples comments in a few years when those twin gas turbos start going bad. In the long term that eco boost motors is going to make a cummins 6 diesel look cheap. Don’t forget the cummins does not have 10 foot of timing chains and tensioners like the V6 overhead cam motors running at 5000 RPM. How long are those going to last. At least the belt on my T100 is cheap.

      I like Toyota but with each passing year the Tundra here in the US is becoming a 4 door ride to the country club carrying nothing but the golf bag. But, it can tow the space shuttle. Who is buying into all this crap?

  2. GoI3ig says:

    They should perhaps check with the snowmobile industry. They have been shaving lots of weight off their products by going to carbon fiber components. (although not without some durability issues)

    It would seem that the bed would be the logical place to start. Wait a tick….Tacoma.

    Correct on the use of dissimilar metals. Toyota learned their lesson in the early 90s when they used steel and brass together in the front spindle/bushing assemblies. That didn’t work out so well in cold weather climates when they contracted differently. That resulted in an under the radar recall for people who lived in the colder latitudes.

    I remember renting a Cadillac years ago that used engine technology that involved cylinders “shutting” down in cruise mode. It was amazing the mileage that big car got when the eight cylinder became a six, or a four. I wonder what ever happened to that?

    I’m happy with the new style of the Tundra, but I would have loved to have seen some improvement in MPGs.

    • Gol3ig,

      The Cadillac you refer to is called cylinder-deactivation. It is a common feature in many GM products. However, when I asked Toyota about this, they expressed some durability and increased cost concerns.


    • Larry says:

      The Cadillac engine just removed the valves from the cam. The new GM trucks are now doing the same. They also have 2 cam profiles. 4 cylinders get full duration and lift profile for power. The other 4 cylinders close the intake valve after the piston has gone part way up. This pushes some of the air back out before the valve closes and allows for a lower fuel injection load without leaning out the mixture which causes exhaust temperatures to rise. This reduces the displacement of those 4 cylinders. It’s like having 2 engines, a 3.0 and 2.5. The 2.5 cylinders cruse and provide low power when the other 4 cylinders have their lifters starved of oil which remove all lift and keeps the valves closed and the injectors are deactivated.

      At cruse the V8 GM motors only run on 4 cylinders.

      Would I ever buy one? Not until I talk to someone who has run one for 150000 miles without any problems. I will believe that when I see it.

      A small 3.0L diesel is mush simpler and produces the same torque at 2500 RPM instead of 6000 RPM. That’s why they last 1 million miles. Unfortunately you can’t step on the gas and pass people and americans demand their trucks behave like dragsters with automatic transmissions.

      Those complex GM motors are unproven and the high RPM twin turbo Ford eco boost will ware out if it’s used at high power for towing on a regular basis.

      Diesel is the answer for heavy loads and that’s why there are no 15L gas motors in the big rigs. Gas doesn’t work for industrial use.

      And,,,,, those Cadillac motors were totally unreliable.

  3. LJC says:

    An informative article. Thanks! I learned some new stuff today 🙂

    Two things, first is it possible to get a chart showing the improvements in fuel economy when a vehicle sheds weight.
    Second, if a truck sheds 500 lbs or more, will it affect its handling characteristics when towing a trailer?

    • Larry says:

      Sure it will. My truck only weighs 4500 pounds. If I had a motor that could pull a 20000 pound trailer, it would not have enough friction force where the tires contact the pavement to stop it.

      It makes no sense to put a 500 foot pound engine in a 4000 pound truck and then try to safely tow 15,000 pounds at 70 MPH. My light truck can tow 1500 but that’s about it. Either I give up my 3.0L V6 which gets 19MPG, I get a 6.0L gas motor which gets 12 or a diesel which gets about 25. Under heavy load the MPG will drop with all of them but, my little V6 will be screaming. I know because on long grades I often drop down to 3rd gear and rev up the motor while going 25 MPG as the monster V8s go by getting 8 MPG on that steep grade.

      If I had to tow 4 horses behind my truck I would not be doing it with a light weight consumer truck with a V6 running at 6000 RPM going up 15 mile grades in Utah or Colorado. I would be rebuilding engines every other year.

  4. marko says:

    I guess I’m in with Larry. Its hard to teach us old dogs new trucks.

  5. Mason says:

    Toyota execs got several comments from the press about fuel-economy at the release of the 2014 Tundra in various auto shows. They stated that Tundra costumers achieve better real-world economy than other full-size trucks with higher EPA ratings. I actually believe them when you look at how most people drive full-sized trucks. look at the Ford F-150 EcoBoost, and the Chevrolet Silverado/ GMC Sierra V-8 Active Fuel Management, and the Ram with an 8 speed, fuel-saver technology (derived from Mercedes), and grille shutters.

    Getting the EPA rating requires driving in a manor that makes sure that the grille shutters are closed, 8 speed in a high gear, AFM running the car on 4 cylinders, or turbochargers not running. That’s easier said than done; you have to drive like a grandma. If you drive in a manner in which the fuel-saving technologies are not activating,(how most people drive) than the Tundra could very well be the most fuel-efficient.

  6. […] are many issues with their plan and many have to do with how different metals interact with each other. However, if Ford can pull off the new truck, they could have a decided advantage over their […]

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