DETROIT — Plastics are about to give Ford Motor Co.'s iconic F-150 truck a distinct design signature.
The all-LED headlight includes a light pipe around the lamp, which sets off the all-plastic system and makes the F-150 look like no other truck on the market, even in the dark.
"It is a new design language," said Gordon Platto, chief designer of the F-150, in an interview following the truck's introduction at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Jan. 13. "It gives a unique character to the truck's front end, especially at night."
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford's 2015 model year F-150 is a major launch for the company. The truck has consistently ranked not only as the top selling truck in North America, but the best selling vehicle overall for 32 years, said Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields.
The automaker is using the new truck as a technology leader, including the extensive use of aluminum throughout the body to reduce weight and improve fuel consumption. The new F-150 will be 700 pounds lighter than the existing model.
That rethinking of the truck for aluminum also opened the potential for new thoughts elsewhere in the vehicle, Platto said.
"The canvas was pretty open," he said.
The last time the F-150 was updated, LED headlights were not quite ready for the mainstream market. Since then, they have been adapted on multiple platforms, while the auto industry has likewise taken to using light pipes as a new kind of way to add specific design elements.
German automaker Audi, for instance, has become recognizable by the "eyebrow" shape LED decorative lighting in the headlamps on its vehicles.
"Nobody had really done it on a truck," Platto said, "so we were able to set the precedent for it, especially for Ford."
Ford began by developing a large headlamp package. Originally, the company had planned to use glass for the optics to focus the beam, but it could not achieve the needed clarity, so instead turned to polycarbonate, he said.
Each lamp uses one LED for the high beam, a second one for the low beam and one for the light pipe. The two beams, along with the light pipe, are then housed within one module.
The orange light pipe — with the color required by federal safety standards — also doubles as the turn single, which will also help the F-150 stand out from a crowd of other trucks on the market. Light pipes can be made from a variety of thermoplastics.
Ford has used turn signals for a design feature in past vehicles, most notably the sequential lighting for the rear turn signal on a Mustang. Platto said the turn signal on the new F-150 should be just as easy to spot.
The rear lighting has the same distinctive lighting design, although it uses a series of smaller LEDs rather than a light pipe for the turn signal.
The rear lamp assembly also houses the radar system for a blind spot monitoring system — the first time Ford has offered blind spot monitoring on a truck.
Typically monitors have not been offered on a truck, in part, because they cannot be packaged inside a metal component, and most truck rear ends are part of the structural steel.
"So where are we going to put this thing?" Platto said. "It's a great piece of technology, but where do you put it? It's easy on a car when you have plastic fascias, because you can pop it anywhere and it can function."
Ford did not want to put it on the end of the steel bumper and then surround it with a plastic end cap, so the taillight module became the perfect spot.
"It provided us with a great opportunity in the lamp, and it gives us a good overall look without adding parts," he said.
The new F-150 comes out later this year, and Ford expects the new signature lighting will be sure it gets attention.
"We thought to ourselves that this was going to be a signature design element, so we were pretty excited — especially when we saw it for the first time in a dark environment.
"It's really a signature piece."