If you’ve got any luck at all, your job comes with the occasional bit of entertainment—the times you get paid to fly business class, knock back some drinks, or spend a few hours outside. For Tim Herrick, it’s when he takes a bunch of cinder blocks, hoists them 6 feet in the air, then pulls a cord to release them, sending them plummeting groundward.
“Those are the fun days,” says Herrick, General Motors’ chief engineer for full-size pickup trucks and SUVs. In this case, he’s dropping those cinder blocks into the bed of the 2019 Sierra Denali, the latest iteration of GMC’s high-end pickup truck, to see what sort of abuse it can handle. It’s a routine test for a new truck, but these results carry extra weight.
The new Sierra is the first production pickup truck with a bed made not from steel, or even aluminum, but from carbon fiber. By switching to the lighter, more expensive material, GM is aiming to push itself ahead of Ford, Toyota, Nissan, and everyone else scrapping for a piece of the profit-rich pickup market.
That change of materials is the biggest news from this introduction, but the new Sierra comes stuffed with clever, practical features that the GMC engineers cooked up to win the souls and wallets of truck-loving Americans. Those include a 3- by 7-inch, full-color head-up display, putting things like navigation directions right in the driver’s line of sight. The rearview mirror can display a camera feed from the back of the car, so tall passengers and piled up luggage no longer block the view.
The pickup gate opens with the click of a button on the key fob, and comes with a built-in step to make it easier to get your piles of gravel, or whatever needs hauling, in and out. Towing gets easier thanks to an app that provides helpful instructions for getting hooked up and for moving in reverse, the stuff that can prove harrowing for newbies.
The new Sierra is 350 pounds lighter than its predecessor (which ranged from 5,211 to 5,529 pounds, depending on the model). That’s partly because Herrick and his team made the doors and hood from aluminum. But the key move was using carbon fiber for the bed, which dropped 62 pounds. Given that carmakers will shrink their door hinges to save a few ounces, the chance to shed that much weight in a single move is a big deal.
Those weight savings will help GM keep up with ever-stricter federal gas mileage requirements, but they’re no good if consumers think they make for a weaker truck. It’s worth noting that when Ford started making its F-150 truck from aluminum in 2014, GM’s Chevy responded with a series of ads that pooh-poohed aluminum’s ability to withstand heavy loads without chipping or cracking. And while Chevy has pulled some of those ads off YouTube, its sister brand GMC couldn’t risk giving Ford the same kind of ammunition.
Thus the flight of the cinder blocks, which Herrick’s team started chaining together after one bounced off the bed and nearly clubbed an engineer. They also abused the Sierra with gravel and chunks of concrete, and tossed snowmobiles with studded tracks into the bed. They put the truck on a test rig that clamps onto the wheels, twisting the body this way and that to simulate life on the long, bumpy, potholed road. Through it all, Herrick says, the carbon fiber proved plenty tough. “It’s like breaking an anvil.” Or trying to, anyway.
Usually reserved for supercars, where weight matters more than cost, carbon fiber is light and strong but also expensive. The closest it has come to the masses in recent years is in electric vehicles—where dropping weight extends range—like BMW’s i3 and Volvo’s upcoming Polestar cars. The material’s path to the Sierra started in the R&D department around 2011, when GM struck up with Teijin, a Japanese carbon fiber manufacturer. It took years for the R&D department to make the stuff cheap and useable enough for mass production.
As GM’s most expensive truck, the Sierra Denali is thus the logical entry point for the carbon pickup bed. The automaker hasn’t released pricing for this new model, but the outgoing truck starts at $52,900. The good news for the load-bearing drivers of America is that Herrick fully expects to the lightweight stuff to spread to other, cheaper models before long. He may not be able to make your job any more fun, but he could at least lighten the load.
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