How Ford secretly used customers to test its aluminum F-150 [w/video]

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Automakers getting clever about disguising development vehicles isn’t anything new. Between mules wearing the sheetmetal of other cars and prototypes decked out in as much camouflage as is practical, automakers know how to make it very difficult for the general public to get an exact idea of what kind of vehicle is in development. Ford, though, is rapidly becoming the master.

We knew that the Blue Oval originally tested the durability of the aluminum construction being used for the2015 F-150 by building an all-aluminum 2014 truck and entering it in the Baja 1000 off-road race. That’s no longer a secret. What we didn’t know, though, is that the aluminum development dates back to before even that, and that some of the people in question had no idea what it was they were working with.

Ford says this is the first time prototypes have ever been handed over to the public.

See, way back in 2011, Ford built six examples of the then-current F-150 generation, using aluminum for the most-abused part of the truck, the cargo box. Those trucks were then delivered to three outfits across the country – Barrick Mining in Nevada, Walsh Construction in Pennsylvania and Alabama and a utility provider in North Carolina. The catch was, not a single group knew they were testing a vehicle with such intensive aluminum work. While this strikes us as a slightly risky move, it seems to have paid off for Ford.

“This secret testing almost immediately yielded results and lessons we have rolled into the all-new F-150,” said Denis Kansier, the F-150 prototype lead engineer. “For example, we made the cargo box floor thicker to improve strength, and we made modifications to the tailgate based on lessons we learned through customer usage.”

Meanwhile, the trucks that were loaned out are still in use. The Barrick trucks cover 100 to 300 miles per day and, between the two, have over 150,000 miles on the clock. The North Carolina trucks cover around 200 miles per day, while the Walsh trucks helped put together a hydroelectric dam and a highway interchange.

According to Ford, this is the first time prototype vehicles have ever been handed over to the public. “Our customers demand the highest levels of toughness and productivity – so we wanted to test the truck outside, in the harshest conditions and in the hands of real customers – with no limits,” said Larry Queener, the F-150’s program manager. “But we did not want these customers to know what was different. So, when we gave them the prototype vehicles, we told them to use the trucks like their other hard-working Ford trucks, and we would be back to follow their progress.”

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