DETROIT — Ford Motor Co.'s switch to an aluminum body on the 2015 F-150 was revolutionary. The change, although costly, helped the automaker boost its share of the hugely profitable segment, post record transaction prices and increase its margin as America's full-size pickup leader over Chevrolet and Ram.
Ford looked to be leading the way toward making aluminum the industry standard for automakers to shed weight and improve fuel economy to meet government targets.
But nobody followed.
When Chevrolet and Ram unveiled their next-generation pickups at the Detroit auto show, the mostly steel bodies and beds underscored the starkly different paths the Detroit 3 are taking for their most important vehicles.
"We don't believe in it. We fundamentally don't believe in it," Alan Batey, General Motors' North America president, told Automotive News about an all-aluminum pickup. He said the company analyzed the possibility of such a truck but decided against it.
"We look at everything," Batey said. "Did we ever seriously consider it? No."
The divergent strategies of the Detroit automakers, which account for 83 percent of U.S. light-duty pickup sales, go against the norm for the extremely competitive segment, in which big innovations by one company tend to quickly get adopted by the others.
"It's not just different strategies," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. "It's about strategies that play to your strengths."
Ford, she said, needed to put its largest vehicles on a strict diet, and aluminum was the right choice for its needs at that time, helping the F-150 drop about 700 pounds.
The different paths were made possible by breakthroughs in materials by organizations such as the Steel Market Development Institute, which has worked with automakers, including the Detroit 3, for decades. The steel industry fought back hard after Ford decided to use aluminum on the F-150 and other automakers began talking up other alternative materials, such as carbon fiber and magnesium.
"Their focus the last several years has been on lightweighting," said Jody Hall, vice president of the automotive market for the association of North American steel producers. "That's when we've seen the most innovation from the steel industry."
Hall argues that the most advanced steels for the auto industry are two to three times stronger than the highest-grade aluminum, which is why automakers continue to use steel for their pickup frames. In addition, lower gasoline prices have made fuel economy less of a concern for many pickup buyers than when Ford was working on the F-150's redesign.
Ford says it has no regrets about switching to aluminum. In 2017, the F series logged its 41st consecutive year as the nation's best-selling pickup. It outsold the No. 2 Chevrolet Silverado by more than 300,000 vehicles, the largest gap ever between the two pickups, despite Chevrolet's attack ads that tried to portray aluminum as weak.
"It's been fantastic," Brian Bell, Ford's marketing manager for the F-150 and Ranger, said in an interview. "Everybody's got a different strategy. They all look at their own programs in different ways. We think what we did has been the perfect choice for us."