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The Ford F-150, America’s most American pickup truck, is going electric

“Yes, it’s coming.”

Ford plans to make an electric version of its best-selling F-150 pickup truck.
Ford plans to make an electric version of its best-selling F-150 pickup truck.
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Major US automakers have been saying for years that the future is electric. Yet, at the moment, their electric car offerings are meager.

But the electric future got a huge boost this month.

Ford Motor Company, the second-largest US automaker, announced it plans to create a battery-powered version of its most popular offering, the F-Series, an iconic line of pickup trucks.

“Here’s what’s going to happen next to future-proof that global juggernaut of commercial vehicles: We’re going to be electrifying the F-Series, both battery-electric and hybrid,” Jim Farley, Ford president of global markets, told analysts, according to the Detroit News.

This is huge. Pickup trucks are a cultural shibboleth in the United States — a staple of American farms, construction sites, and country music videos.

Ford sold more than 900,000 units of the F-series line last year, making it the best-selling model line in the United States. The F-150 in particular stands out, with more than 40 million sold over the last 60 years.

Making some of these trucks electric could take a bite out of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, and cars and light-duty trucks account for 60 percent of these emissions.

All in all, the fact that a major US car company wants to electrify pickup trucks is a signal that culture around clean vehicles is starting to shift. But there are also some significant hurdles ahead for Ford as well as for challengers like electric truckmaker Rivian. Let’s break it down.

It’s a challenging time for US carmakers dabbling in electrification

There are now more than 1 million electric vehicles in the United States. Industry analysts project that number will rise to 18.7 million by 2030. However, President Trump late last year threatened to revoke a key federal tax incentive for electric vehicles, and his administration’s tariffs on components like steel may raise the prices of new cars. These actions threaten to dampen EV sales just as they’re taking off.

Still, Ford made its announcement in the wake of these policies, and some new automakers remain undaunted in their race to bring an electric pickup truck to the United States.

It shows that these companies believe there is a robust market, that environmental regulations may become more stringent, and that the technology will continue to improve in performance and drop in price. Electrifying pickup trucks in particular would also push batteries into a new market segment, one not already served by low-slung luxury sedans or tiny, electron-sipping econoboxes.

However, details are short and Ford hasn’t committed to a timeline or a price just yet. “In terms of the battery-electric F-150: Yes, it’s coming,” Emma Bergg, a spokesperson for Ford, told Vox in an email. “We are constantly looking at new ways to better serve our truck customers, from materials to features to propulsion systems. We don’t have any specifics on timing or any further details to share at this time.”

Pickup trucks are an overlooked but important market for electric vehicles

In the US, pickup trucks are more popular than ever, with about 270 pickup trucks sold every hour, 6,500 per day. They’ve evolved quite a bit since their early days as stripped-down workhorses whose main functions were to haul and tow.

These days, pickup trucks balance utility and comfort and are increasingly moving upmarket with luxury finishes. While many remain functional utility vehicles, their image is a big part of their appeal. The Ford F-150 starts at $28,000, but upscale versions can easily top out above $70,000.

For electric truckmaker Rivian, that presents an opportunity. The company has more than 700 employees, owns a manufacturing plant in Normal, Illinois, and is aiming to start production of an electric truck with a 400-mile range in 2020 with a price tag around $70,000.

As yet, the company hasn’t produced anything, but with its R1T pickup truck and R1S SUV, it’s targeting the high-end utility vehicle market. “We compete much closer to Land Rover than Tesla,” said Michael McHale, a spokesperson for Rivian.

Rivian aims to begin production of its R1T electric pickup truck in 2020.
Rivian aims to begin production of its R1T electric pickup truck in 2020.

McHale explained that an electric drivetrain yields several key advantages over traditional gasoline and electric engines. Electric motors are much smaller and more versatile. Rivian’s truck uses four motors, one for each wheel. That means there is no driveshaft, which reduces weight. Powering each wheel individually improves traction and maneuverability. Electric motors can also generate gobs of torque at low RPMs, which is immensely helpful for towing.

And electric cars are quiet and produce no pollution. So for drivers venturing into the wilderness, an electric truck or SUV is one way to uphold the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” ethos of outdoor exploration.

“Our job is now to disprove that EVs are fragile, that they can’t go offroad, that they can’t get wet,” McHale said.

Other companies are getting into the electric truck game too. Bollinger Motors is working on an electric truck. So is Tesla.

But there may still be some cultural hurdles. Some pickup truck owners have flaunted the fact that they drive massive gas-chuggers, as we’ve seen with the phenomenon of rolling coal. There was even a report last year of pickup truck owners deliberately blocking EV chargers in a gas station parking lot.

So an electric pickup truck probably won’t bridge the red state/blue state divide and bring America together. The real question is whether Toby Keith will still croon about an electric F-150.

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