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Can the new aluminum F-150 deliver? Clues from the P.O.

The Postal Service is more concerned about the LLV's steel frame and obtaining spare parts for the powertrain, which is sourced from GM, than it is about issues with the aluminum body. Photo credit: U.S. POSTAL SERVICE
UPDATED: 1/10/14 2:26 pm ET - corrected

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Han Dinh, the Postal Service's manager of technology innovations.

Ford's aluminum 2015 F-150 debuting Monday at the North American International Auto Show will test the popular truck's mettle.

The switch from steel to aluminum is a giant gamble with such an important vehicle. Ford has to get the image of aluminum being soft and possibly not fit -- think readily crushable beer and pop cans -- for duty in the F-150 out of truck buyers' heads.

Is aluminum really strong enough to take a beating in a severe use environment? Is the metal durable enough to last for decades? What impact will pricey aluminum have on repair costs?

One major fleet operator in the United States already knows the answers to these questions: The U.S. Postal Service.

America's mail truck is the aluminum-bodied Grumman LLV, for Long Life Vehicle, that has been on the nation's roads since 1987. The LLV has rolled up tens of billions of miles over 27 years in every state and in every weather condition, hauling heavy loads over rough roads. There are about 160,000 LLVs in service today.

How has the LLV performed?

"The decision to go with LLV is probably one of the best decisions we ever made," says Han Dinh, the Postal Service's manager of technology innovations.

Animal House
One of Ford's challenges: Dispelling any notion that aluminum is soft and therefore unfit for tough trucks.

He says the aluminum bodies of the oldest vehicles in the fleet are holding up extremely well. There have been no issues of metal fatigue weakening the bodies from the constant jostling in everyday driving. Extended exposure to salty roads, snow and rain have not weakened the joints that hold the bodies together.

Dihn says the Postal Service is more concerned about the LLV's steel frame and obtaining spare parts for the powertrain, which is sourced from General Motors, than it is about issues with the aluminum body.

"The only reason we have to replace a body panel is because of an accident, not corrosion," he said.

He said the Postal Service has developed a cost-effective way to contain repair costs of the more expensive aluminum: Bent panels are not fixed. They are removed and replaced with identical panels that are painted in advance.

"Aluminum, unlike steel, does not have a memory effect, the tendency to go back to its precollision shape," said Dihn. "The LLVs shape is square, and most of the aluminum panels are flat. Replacing the panel with pre-painted panel makes repairs easier and more environmentally friendly."

Ford will have an interesting story to tell with the 2015 F-150. The process it developed to bond and rivet the body-in-white required a major r&d effort and Ford has applied for dozens of patents.

The new truck could also herald the debut of a new EcoBoost engine Ford alluded to a few weeks ago.

Here are two important nuggets of news to listen for: The weight of the 2015 aluminum F-150 compared with the 2014 steel-bodied truck, and the 2015's projected fuel economy, the primary reason the company switched to aluminum in the first place.

Pay close attention to the details here. Ford will gain little if the weight that comes out from using aluminum goes right back in because of new features. The weight figure that matters most -- and the one that will determine if Ford's gamble was a good one -- is the curb weight of the new truck compared with the curb weight of the old one.

Industry analysts are looking for weight savings in the 750-pound range. The body-in-white weight comparison means nothing because no one drives a body-in-white.

The new F-150's fuel economy improvement will be directly related to the weight savings. And this is a battle Ford may not win. Chrysler's Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is likely to get an EPA highway rating of 28 mpg. The current F-150 EcoBoost is rated at 23 mpg.

There is a lot at stake with the new F-150, which was previewed a year ago at the 2013 Detroit auto show when Ford showcased the Atlas concept truck. But the enviable record of the Postal Service's fleets of LLV's shows aluminum is tough enough for trucks.

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