DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. soon could decide to build pickup trucks with plastic beds and tailgates.
If automakers would give the green light today, the first production versions could be on the road by the 2000 or 2001 model year, according to sources across a spectrum of automotive plastics companies. One supplier said the potential market for plastic pickup truck boxes and tailgates could exceed $100 million a year.
``We're salivating,'' said another supplier who, like several others, declined to be identified.
A composite material has inherent advantages for pickup beds: It resists dents, does not rust, is 20 percent or more lighter than steel and can be molded with novel features, such as for holding cargo. Bedliners would be unnecessary.
The disadvantages: Parts made of composite materials take longer to produce than steel stampings, and raw material costs are higher. Also, recycling can be a challenge.
GM and Ford are ``both kind of standing there trying to make a decision,'' a supplier said. ``I think they're trying to figure out how to price it. It could happen in a month or it could happen in a year.''
Suppliers want a price that will let them make money on the parts and pay for new composites plants and tooling. The auto companies, according to suppliers, are not interested in funding new plants for parts makers.
``If the cost issues can be solved, these things will start popping up like dandelions in the spring,'' a supplier said in an interview with Automotive News, a Plastics News sister publication.
Detroit's Big Three have been experimenting with composite truck beds and tailgates for at least a decade. In recent years, hundreds of parts have been installed for testing on automakers' fleet vehicles. The federal government also has funded basic research in light-truck composites through the Automotive Composites Consortium, part of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research.
GM, Ford and Chrysler Corp. have ``very active'' development programs under way for composite truck beds, said Tom Paisley, president of engineered products at Cambridge Industries Inc., a plastics supplier in Madison Heights, Mich.
``They all have it on their planning horizon, but I don't know if anyone's approved it,'' Paisley said. ``It's a little bit premature to talk about it.''
Each of the Big Three declined to comment.
The first vehicles to use the plastic composite beds probably would be sporty compact pickups. According to one supplier, GM has built two sets of prototype tools and is building production-ready tooling for a 61/2-foot box for the Chevrolet S10. The composite beds, which could be fitted with plastic or steel gates and fenders, might be offered as standard equipment or an option.
Ford is said to be investigating sheet molding compound for its pickup box, and GM is working with structural reaction injection molding.
Much of the development effort around mass production of automotive composites has focused on reducing the cost of the material and cycle times. Some composites require curing in an oven, which slows the process. The Big Three also are leery of cost overruns, which have been common with composites in the past, a supplier said.
``They all have niche vehicles for which a composite box makes economic sense,'' a supplier said. ``But the nagging question is whether the technology is truly ready.''
Suppliers say the competition for the composite pickup box business includes some of the biggest parts makers in the automotive plastics industry: Cambridge, Thyssen Budd Automotive, Magna International Inc. and Textron Automotive Co.
Morrison Molded Fiber Glass Co. also has been involved in development work with GM.