Ford's aluminum F-150 faces insurance rate, repair shop challenges

Ford spent as long as 18 months assessing its ability to service, manufacture and purchase material before deciding on an aluminum body, says COO Mark Fields.
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DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- After laboring for five years to develop its aluminum F-150, Ford Motor Co. now confronts a new challenge: preventing higher insurance rates and a dearth of mechanics equipped to repair its body from deterring buyers.

Less than 10 percent of the more than 30,000 independent repair shops in the United States are certified and meet training and equipment requirements to work with most aluminum auto body parts, according to an estimate by Darrell Amberson, chairman of the Automotive Service Association. While some dealerships do in-house body work, independent businesses handle the vast majority of collision repair in the United States, he said.

Ford is betting buyers will accept what it estimates will be a 10 percent jump in costs to insure the pickup in return for improved fuel economy, towing and payload. Ford must also get the aftermarket industry up to speed as it debuts the highest-profile vehicle to swap aluminum for heavier steel, long the industry's material of choice.

"You don't get any more mainstream than the F-150," Amberson, who is also vice president of operations for LaMettry's Collision Inc. in Minneapolis, said in a telephone interview.

Insurance companies charge less for coverage of the outgoing F-150 compared with the competition, Doug Scott, Ford's truck marketing manager, said last week in an interview from the company's stand at the Detroit auto show.

"At the end of the day, that's sort of a wash," he said. "We've spent a lot of time and feel very comfortable that that's not going to be an inhibitor."

Aluminum's memory

Repair shops need separate hand tools for aluminum and steel such as wire brushes, grinders and sanders, because corrosion can happen when dissimilar metals come in contact with one another. The auto body repair industry also has less experience with differences in how aluminum springs back from impacts compared with steel.

"Aluminum has a very poor memory and it resists straightening attempts," Jeff Poole, a coordinator for I-CAR, a collision-repair industry training organization, said in an April 2013 webinar. "Experience really pays dividends here, and this is where we've got a learning curve ahead of us."

Ford's internal data show that 90 percent of customers live within two hours of a capable repair facility for today's F-150, and 80 percent are within 30 minutes, Ford's Scott said. Buyers of the aluminum-bodied F-150 will have the same access by the time it arrives in dealerships late this year, he said.

"We've just been waiting for the reveal to unveil a certification process for dealer-owned body shops and the independent channel," Scott said.

18 months

Ford started work in 2009 on the truck program that yielded the F-150 debuting at last week's Detroit auto show, according to COO Mark Fields. Ford spent as long as 18 months assessing its ability to service, manufacture and purchase material before deciding on an aluminum body, he said at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit last week.

The new truck weighs as much as 700 pounds less than the current version.

Once the decision was made to go with the material, Ford was able to select a high-strength alloy that's thicker than what's used in the current truck because aluminum is about one-third the density of steel, Fields told reporters.

"The new F series is going to be more dent- and ding-resistant," he said. "Our engineers have great tests where they're dropping bowling balls. We've actually been testing this with a number of our customers, in the construction industry, the mining industry, to help us."

Certified shops

Residual values for the new F-150, which measure how well the truck retains its worth after years of ownership, could decline because of higher insurance costs.

"The automakers can force their certified body shops to be able to work with aluminum, but that still could narrow down the choice and the scope of shops that consumers and insurance companies will have," Larry Dominique, the president of ALG, which has forecast residual values for almost 50 years. "This will work itself out, but it could take 10 years."

While automakers including Volkswagen AG's Audi and Tata Motors Ltd.'s Jaguar Land Rover have used aluminum in their cars and SUVs, Ford produces its F-series trucks in much higher volume. Past examples of aluminum use in auto bodies are inconsistent in terms of whether insurance rates rise and affect ownership costs that play a role in forecasting residuals, Dominique said.

Truck loyalty

Even if the F-150's residuals fall, which would make it more costly for buyers to lease the truck or dent the value of a pickup that's traded in, Ford's broader risks are limited, said Dominique. He started work on Nissan Motor Co.'s first Titan pickup in 2001 and was its chief product specialist when he worked for the company.

"Truck owners are so damn loyal," he said. "When we would interview Ford, Chevy and Dodge owners, they would say, 'Well, why would I even look at a Nissan?' We were one rung below nobody."

Ford estimates that 80 percent of its customers are comfortable with its use of aluminum because they come into contact with the material in other applications, such as with toolboxes and ladders that need to be both strong and light, Scott said.

Ford noted multiple times in its press release and its F-150 unveiling at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena this month that it logged more than 10 million miles of testing with the new truck. A disguised 2015 model that raced in the 883-mile Baja 1000 off-road race in California almost two months ago, still caked in dirt, was on the company's stand at the auto show last week.

Accidents happen

The ability of the aftermarket industry to prove it can handle collision work on the new F-150 will be tested soon after the truck reaches the market, said Amberson, the Automotive Service Association chairman.

"People don't wait until the vehicle is a few years old to start having accidents," he said. "We can see them very early on."

The timing of the truck's arrival alone could be viewed as another potential concern. Analysts from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and RBC Capital Markets all said in reports last week that they expected the first F-150s to hit dealerships in the third quarter. Ford said last week that the truck will go on sale in the fourth quarter.

"This is the biggest bet of the show and maybe one of the biggest bets ever in the car industry," Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., said in an interview.

Unprecedented volume

"Ford is going to have to execute, and building at that volume in aluminum has never been done in the history of the automobile business. And there are reasons it hasn't been done: It's expensive, and it's complicated and it's difficult to work with."

Jackson, who leads the largest retailer of new vehicles in the United States, said he trusts that Ford CEO and former Boeing Co. executive Alan Mulally's knowledge of working with aluminum on planes will help the automaker pull it off.

"We're going to have to develop, prepare, train for another new technology. It's a lot to ask" of dealers, he said. "But that's the price of leadership."

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