General Motors 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 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.
“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 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.
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.