General Motors Co. plans to use costly but lightweight carbon fiber to make the beds on premium versions of large pickup trucks, according to people familiar with the strategy, as the auto maker aims to stay competitive in the crucial category while also satisfying tightening fuel-economy standards.
The change, which the people say is expected to be implemented within two years, is likely to increase the cost of the pickups, testing GM’s ability to charge a hefty premium.
However, it would help the auto maker comply with the new regulatory standards by making the vehicles lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient.
GM also is trying to keep innovating in the face of other moves by rivals. Ford Motor Co. in 2014 launched aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup trucks, which GM criticized in advertisements by questioning whether aluminum is as durable as the steel that auto makers conventionally used to build work trucks.
- The Promise and Pitfalls of Carbon Fiber
Pickup sales represent about 16% of the U.S. market, but delivered the bulk of the $25 billion in operating profit Detroit’s Big Three auto makers earned in North America last year, according to analysts. J.D. Power estimates GM’s large pickups fetch $43,220 on average, up about 30% from five years ago, but below the $45,000 transactions on Ford’s F-Series.
“I think you’re going to see GM go all out on this truck,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. “It’s a fight to keep these products relevant in a changing regulatory environment. They can’t afford to have a miss.”
Carbon fiber, which today is reserved mostly for exotic sports cars, could deliver an advantage to GM because it is significantly stronger than steel or aluminum, but also far lighter. The composite, however, is much costlier and more complicated to produce than other materials, adding pressure to Detroit’s effort to charge more for products that already have risen well into luxury-car territory.
GM will unveil redesigned versions of its next-generation full-size pickup trucks—the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra—in coming weeks, and will start selling those models at dealerships next autumn, without a carbon-fiber box available, the people said. The carbon-fiber pickup box is under development and expected to be offered on higher-priced pickup trucks in late 2019, the people said. Plans could change if the project hits technical or cost hurdles, the people said.
A GM spokesman declined to discuss future product plans.
Development of the new trucks slated for sale next year—along with several large SUVs such as the Chevy Suburban that will use the same underpinnings—consumed a few billion dollars and took several years. They will use a patchwork of materials to balance cost and regulatory concerns, including aluminum doors and a high-strength steel cabin, the people said.
GM and Ford in recent years have joined with carbon-fiber producers to accelerate its readiness for applications in the broader market. GM and Tokyo-based Teijin Ltd. teamed up in 2011, for instance, and Ford entered a joint venture with carbon-fiber manufacturer DowAksa in 2015.
GM sells about 800,000 full-size pickups annually, and its use of carbon fiber, even if initially confined to higher-priced models, could push broader adoption in the auto industry.
Trucks represent a unique challenge for Detroit. Buyers expect ample power to haul boats and construction gear, but regulators are demanding more efficient designs over the next seven years to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and improve fuel economy. That thinking underpinned Ford’s use of aluminum for the market-leading F-Series, which Environmental Protection Agency officials have said they see as already nearly meeting 2025 fuel-economy standards.
GM plans to add other features to its trucks to help hit fuel-economy targets, including a new diesel engine and hybrid version, the people said.
Auto makers have been using steel and aluminum in large quantities for more than a century. Carbon-fiber production, by contrast, involves a painstaking weaving of carbon into a fabric, which is combined using a glue-like chemical and hardened into parts.
Carbon fiber is at least 50-75% lighter than steel and 20-50% lighter than aluminum, depending on the type, according to Ducker Worldwide, a materials consultancy that works with auto makers. It would improve dent resistance and give GM a differentiating feature in the fierce realm of truck marketing, said Richard Schultz, a metals expert at Ducker.
GM’s use “would overshadow any other use of carbon fiber in the auto industry if they could pull that off,” Mr. Schultz said. Because the process requires expensive equipment and takes much longer than making stamped metal or aluminum, GM likely will have fully formed parts shipped from a supplier to its truck plants, he said.
GM has experimented with plastics on pickup beds before. In 2001 it offered a pickup-truck box made of a composite material, though not carbon fiber, as an $850 option on the Silverado. But it was discontinued in 2003 after being hampered by quality problems and sales fell far short of targets, according to industry researcher Wardsauto.com.
Some high-end cars already use substantial amounts of carbon fiber including Ford’s $450,000 GT supercar, BMW AG’s i3 electric vehicle and Audi AG’s R8.
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com