Intelligence gathering is nothing new in the automotive industry. Take a trip to any auto show before the doors open to the general public and you'll see groups of serious-looking people in serious suits picking over their competitors' cars with a fine-toothed comb. But no potential source of information can go unplumbed in the great pickup truck arms race, which is how General Motors engineers ended up sneaking into public tours of the Ford F-150 factory in Michigan as they developed the next-generation Silverado and Sierra trucks, according to a new report in Reuters.
General Motors has made a point of poking fun at Ford's recent switch to an aluminum body and bed in the F-150 whenever possible. However, the company also realized it would need to incorporate the lighter metal somehow in its new trucks in order to reach weight and fuel economy targets. The solution involved crafting the new Silverado and Sierra's moveable panels (the hood, the doors, and the tailgate) out of a mix of aluminum and steel.
However, executive chief engineer for GM's truck programs Tim Herrick told Reuters that the team wanted to get a firsthand look at how Ford managed with the material on its production line. It's not illegal for engineers from one company to sign up for a public tour of another's factory, and anyone who's ever taken a tour like this knows that manufacturers take great pains not to show off too much of the operation. But according to Herrick, the GM employees still found what they came for.
Using stopwatches to check for efficiency, Herrick said that the team saw Ford employees having "a real hard time getting those [aluminum] doors to fit." Curious to find out more, the engineers furtively bought new F-150 doors that were intended to be used as repair parts and tore them to pieces. The end result of all this research? Herrick said they determined they could use a different mix of aluminum and thinner high-strength steel to save even more weight and avoid causing production line difficulties.
The rest of the report details the financial stakes in the latest chapter of America's long-running full-size truck feud between GM, Ford, and Ram. In an era of rapid technological change, all three manufacturers have doubled down and increased their investments in the next generation of big trucks with big V8 engines - though changes like carbon fiber beds and tech-forward interiors show how the game has advanced a bit. But even in their arrested development, these are still the best-selling vehicles in the country and profit leaders for their manufacturers, who will continue to scrap for every bit of competitive advantage.