Ford really knows how to put on a show.
The introduction last month of the battery-electric F-150 Lightning pickup was a slick Hollywood-quality production that smashed it out of the ballpark as far as new vehicle debuts go. With Ford's classic "glass house" Dearborn, Mich., headquarters doubling as a giant screen, company officials made it clear to Tesla, Rivian and others that it intends to dominate the electric pickup segment.
And Ford probably will. The F-Series has been America's top-selling pickup for 44 straight years.
And yet, curiously, one word — aluminum — was not mentioned by any of the key presenters: Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, CEO Jim Farley and the truck's chief engineer, Linda Zhang. As with the rest of the F-150 and Super Duty lineup, the Lightning will have a body made of weight-saving aluminum.
You may recall it was less than a decade ago that Ford spent more than $1 billion to retool two of its assembly plants when it ditched steel panels to make aluminum-bodied trucks. But the cost to convert the F-Series from steel to aluminum was far, far higher than that. Ford spent more than a decade developing, testing and perfecting the bonding and riveting and manufacturing technology needed to build the F-Series truck at high volumes.
I watched the May 19 introduction of the Lightning, filtering out the self-congratulatory happy talk and focusing on the technical details. One version of the Lightning is expected to have a driving range between charges of 300 miles. That's an impressive feat for a vehicle weighing over 3 tons and that is about as aerodynamic as a cinder block.
On the standard issue F-150, the use of aluminum panels can save as much as 700 pounds, according to Ford. With electric vehicles, the amount of weight the motors have to push around directly and dramatically impacts driving range. Lower weight also has other advantages, such as improved braking and handling and increased amount of loads the truck can tow and haul.
Ford does mention "military grade aluminum" in its Lightning press materials, but those are not widely seen by the public. Maybe Ford decided not to draw attention to the F-150's 6,500-pound weight during its broadcast because it's no longer winning the lightweighting race it kicked off with the 2015 F-150.
Rivian's R1T electric pickup that launches in July makes extensive use of carbon fiber and magnesium and also has an aluminum body and a 300-mile range. But the R1T weighs in at just over 5,800 pounds. We don't know yet whether that is an apples-to-apples comparison because Ford tends to load its trucks with dozens of convenience and comfort features and safety technology.
With electric trucks, keeping weight down is super critical. The lower the weight, the longer the driving range between charges. You can bet there will be weight watchers out there looking to see which company is leading the league. Right now, it looks like Rivian has the advantage.