Pickup trucks aren't typically the apple of the gas miser's eye, drinking their fair share and then some, all too often used for anything but their intended purpose of hauling and towing. But their inefficiency is precisely why gas mileage improvements are important in the pickup world, and why they can have a significant impact on overall emissions and fuel consumption.

To that end, and to help manage compliance with upcoming 2020 CAFE standards, Ford [NYSE: F] may be looking at expanding its use of aluminum in its core product, the F-150. Leading the pickup sales charts for 35 years and the overall vehicle charts for the past 30 years, improvements to the F-150's gas mileage could have a huge impact on our national fuel consumption totals.

Ford already uses an aluminum hood on the F-150, but according to the Wall Street Journal, we could see a more extensive use of the lighter-weight metal in the truck's body panels. The goal, according to the report, is to save about 700 pounds from the F-150's current curb weight, a reduction of about 15 percent. That weight savings, plus improvements elsewhere (drivetrain, aerodynamics, etc.) could produce total gas mileage improvements of up to 25 percent, which would put the truck on target for CAFE standards through 2020--from the time it hits the market, expected in 2014.

But not so fast, says Ford, via the Detroit News. According to Ford product communications manager Said Deep, any discussion of the specific details of future products is "premature" at this point. That's clearly not a denial of more extensive aluminum use in the next F-150, but it's not a confirmation, either. If the F-150 does get an added dose of aluminum in place of steel, it's most likely to happen in the body panels at the front of the vehicle, especially the fenders and door skins.

If Ford does use significantly more aluminum in the F-150, it could have several impacts on the truck's manufacture, including higher production and materials costs, greater complexity of construction, and, potentially, buyers' perceptions of reduced durability. But from the perspective of making the F-150 a greener truck, saving weight--through aluminum or other means--could yield big dividends.

2013 Ford F-150 Lariat

2013 Ford F-150 Lariat

While the weight of the F-150, like most pickups, owes in part to its necessary strength for hauling and towing the loads it's designed to carry, it's little more than dead weight when the truck is used for ordinary driving tasks--and that's what many F-150s spend most of their time doing.

Improving the current F-150 V-6's gas mileage by 25 percent could yield up to 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, while the same improvement would boost the V-8 four-wheel-drive model's EPA rating to as much as 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. While those are small numbers compared to something like the 53/46 mpg Toyota Prius C, or even Ford's own 41/36 mpg Fusion Hybrid, the actual quantity of gasoline saved at the lower end of the spectrum is staggering.

For example, in the case of the V-8 4WD F-150, an improvement from 13 mpg combined to 16 mpg combined (as implied by the 25 percent guesstimate) would yield fuel savings over an average driver's yearly 15,000 miles of 216 gallons per year. That would save owners about $800 at current gas prices. It's also about the same fuel savings (in gallons used per year) that the same driver would get in switching from the 26-mpg-combined four-cylinder 2012 Fusion to the 39-mpg-combined 2012 Fusion Hybrid.

Perhaps even more to the point, any improvement in gas mileage for the F-150 scales to far greater numbers than any hybrid: Ford sold nearly 600,000 F-series trucks last year, 390,000 of which were F-150s. That's just about three times the total U.S. sales volume of the Toyota Prius.

If the F-150 does get significantly lighter, through the use of aluminum or otherwise, it might not be truly green, but it could be a lot greener.


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