Starting 2015, the steel of Ford's (F) legendary pick-up truck F-150 will be replaced with aluminum in an effort to make the vehicle lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, the vehicle might not be as strong as it currently is (which is yet to be tested by consumers), and many people are wondering if Ford will lose market share to its competitors such as Toyota (TM) and GM (GM) if enough people show concern regarding the strength and durability of the vehicle.
This is a big deal for Ford because the F series is a cash cow for the company, and each F series vehicle sold results in a profit of $10,000. It is estimated that Ford made a profit of $7.6 billion on F series vehicles last year, which is larger than the company's total profits (Ford F series account for about a third of the company's total revenues). Basically, Ford F series claim most of Ford's North American profits and offset all of Europe's loses, which makes the series a huge deal for Ford.
An average Ford F-150 vehicle weighs about 5,000 pounds and Ford can drop this average weight to as little as 4,300 pounds by replacing steel with aluminum. Obviously, a lighter vehicle will use less fuel and this is a feature many small business owners and the government want future vehicles to have. Keep in mind that F-150s are usually driven in less than ideal conditions, such as off-road conditions, which makes it crucial for these vehicles to be strong and endurable. A lot of buyers might be vary of getting a vehicle with an aluminum body, fearing that their vehicle will not be as strong as a steel vehicle, while others might actually appreciate fuel savings. After all, people won't be driving their pick-up trucks in high speeds, especially if they use these trucks to pull heavy loads. This reduces the risk of a high impact crush that might possibly damage the truck big time.
Ford definitely understands how valuable F-150 truck is and the company will not gamble with this truck that claims a large chunk of its overall revenues and profits. I am sure that the company did a lot of serious marketing research before deciding on replacing the steel body of these trucks with an aluminum body. Ford might have also found a good and cheap source for aluminum in order to make this transition as smooth as possible.
Currently, the cost of a Ford F-150 can range from $25,000 to $50,000 depending on the body type and option choices. Since aluminum is costlier than steel, many people will be wondering whether Ford will be increasing the price of its truck or sacrifice some margins. Earlier, companies like Dodge and GM thought about replacing steel with aluminum but they both backed away from the idea after finding out how costly it would be and how difficult it would be to pass on these costs to the consumers, even though a lighter truck would result in more fuel-efficiency.
Keep in mind that a lighter truck can pull more weight or bigger trailers. If a truck's engine has the capacity to pull 10,000 pounds and the truck itself weighs 5,000 pounds, that leaves out only 5,000 pounds for the extra load or trailers being pulled by the truck. If the truck is 700 pounds lighter, this will let the truck carry on another 700 pounds in loads without putting more effort to the engine.
The aluminum body is the not only improvement Ford offers with its 2015 F-150 either. The truck will undergo many changes such as a new interior design with more room, leather seats and more wood inlays. The attraction of 2015 F-150 might actually make many people hold off on the 2014 model of the truck, somewhat hurting this year's sales, but sometimes that's not such a bad problem to have.
Mark Williams of Pickuptrucks.com nicely explains how Ford's new F-150 design shows that the company actually understands the needs of truck buyers:
"Probably my favorite aspect about this truck is the strong attention on the most important part of the pickup truck - the bed. New detachable tiedowns that can convert to dividers or snap-in storage bins is just the kind of flexibility and versatility that truck customers bought a pickup for in the first place. Better backup cameras and bed lights and tailgate steps and side steps all combine to make truck guys believe these Ford guys actually understand what they need."
This shows me that Ford really took its time to talk to many truck owners and conducted extensive marketing research to determine many aspects of the new truck. If this doesn't end up hurting Ford's margins and consumers take it well, we may start seeing other Ford models in aluminum as well. The government wants all cars to become much more fuel efficient in the coming years, and the rise of electric cars will also force traditional car companies to come up with more ways to increase fuel efficiency.
Trading at a single digit P/E ratio ex-cash, Ford will continue to be an attractive value player for a while, especially in a market where many stocks are fully valued mostly due to the ongoing quantitative easing.
Additional disclosure: I'm also long some Ford calls expiring in 2016.