GM Secures Aluminum for Trucks Auto Maker Steps Up Effort to Use Metal in High-Volume Pickups
General Motors is accelerating efforts to field a largely aluminum-bodied pickup truck by late 2018, under pressure from federal fuel efficiency standards and archrival Ford Motor, according to people familiar with the matter.
The No. 1 U.S. auto maker recently locked-in supply contracts with Alcoa and Novelis, which are now working to increase their aluminum sheet production to supply the next-generation GM pickup, the people said. Aluminum sheet for automotive bodies is in such high demand that companies need to order it years in advance.
The push to develop what the industry calls an "aluminum intensive" large pickup marks an apparent change of direction for GM, which has pursued smaller and lighter weight steel-bodied trucks.
Before Ford's debut last month of its 2015 F-150, with a body made almost entirely of aluminum, GM executives questioned whether such a vehicle could be cost competitive or appealing to U.S. customers.
Instead, GM developed two small pickups, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, to meet rising demand for better fuel economy. Those two vehicles are due to arrive on the market as 2015 models this year.
Chrysler, took a third path, boosting the mileage of its steel-bodied Ram pickups with 8-speed transmissions, high-efficiency axles and advanced gasoline and diesel engines. This month Chrysler expects to start selling a Ram 1500 diesel that is rated at up to 28 highway miles on a gallon, setting a new bar for pickups.
Such diverging strategies was unusual among the Detroit Three. In the past, all offered variations of the same design: A steel body bolted to a heavy steel frame, powered by a large eight-cylinder engine. The shift is important because of the volume and profit from their truck sales. Last year, GM sold about 665,000 of its two trucks and Ford sold 763,000 F-series trucks. On average, analysts estimate the two collect about $7,000 in gross profit on each truck sale.
Now, it appears that the two largest suppliers of pickup trucks are again driving in the same direction, but with Ford nearly five years ahead.
A Ford spokesman declined to comment directly on GM's move. "Our innovation and use of advanced materials have consistently set the direction for the American truck market," he said.
"Ford's introduction of the 2015 F-150 pickup truck was a game changer, and it's the first, not the last, conversion of this type," said Novelis spokesman Charles Belbin.
GM's new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks were completely redesigned and went on sale last September. Out of the gate, sales have disappointed and unsold Silverados at dealerships reached a hefty 151 days' supply at the end of January, up from 98 days' supply for the old model a year earlier.
GM executives are betting they can offset Ford's lead by using more advanced welding techniques to produce a lighter, stronger and easier to assemble truck, according to people familiar with the company's plans. GM said it has a patented process that uses multi-ringed electrodes and eliminates lots of rivets from its assembly.
GM executives had considered moving to a largely aluminum design for its Silverado and Sierra pickups in 2008, but abandoned the idea over cost concerns amid the industry downturn, the people said. Those discussion resurfaced last year before Ford displayed its aluminum truck, they added.
Even before the GM pickups get fully redesigned, the auto maker plans major component upgrades within two years. GM is expected to refresh the current Silverado truck in 2016 with a 10-speed transmission that is being developed with Ford. The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker also would adopt the 10-speed transmission that year.
Living around Detroit does have some benefits. To this day, I still find it interesting that GM claims to outsell Ford in truck sales. They used to combine Chevy and GMC sales to achieve this particular stat, but they can't even do that anymore.
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