Ford Sells the Most Popular Pickups but Doesn’t Plan to Dominate Electrics

The company seems ambivalent about its coming electric F-150

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

For 44 consecutive years, the Ford F-150 has been the bestselling pickup in the U.S. For 39 years, it’s been the most popular vehicle of any type. In the middle of next year, Ford says it will release a pure electric version of the truck, and the question then is whether the F-150, and not Tesla, Rivian, Hummer, or anyone else, is in the leading position to dominate the electric pickup.

This is not a trivial matter. Large vehicles — SUVs and pickups — are by far the biggest sellers and profit generators for the industry around the world. The F-150 alone, with $42 billion in sales in 2019, accounted for 27% of all of Ford’s revenue for the year. The two vehicle categories — SUVs and pickups — are likely to be the biggest EV sellers, too. Thus, they are key to who emerges atop the EV race. More pertinent, if EVs end up dominating vehicle sales of all types over the next two decades and beyond, as numerous analysts expect, whoever captures the public’s imagination in electric SUVs, pickups, or both are likely to be among the world’s largest automakers.

As of now, however, the picture is of an ambivalent Ford. I asked Mike Levine, a senior Ford executive in charge of EV communications for North America, how Ford intends to make the F-150 the #1 electric pickup, and the impression is that the company has no such ambition. Instead, Ford intends to keep the pickup on top by marketing numerous versions of it — a combustion version, a hybrid, a pure electric, and so on. The electric will simply be one of many. Ford’s thesis is that the core buyer of a pickup is looking for utility — a vehicle that can tow something, go off-road, or lug stuff in the back — and not the flash of some other coming EV pickups. “The key to winning is providing different trucks for different customers,” Levine said.

That is a very different bet from GM, which as I have written, is putting much weight behind the launch of its all-electric Hummer next year. Also coming next year is the Tesla CyberTruck and the Rivian R1T.

The F-150’s battery will take the truck “300 miles plus,” Levine said. But GM, Tesla, and other EV automakers are coalescing around a minimum 350-mile distance to meet the psychological threshold for eliminating “range anxiety” — the point at which a consumer will more or less lose the fear of running out of juice, and thus will seriously consider buying the vehicle. And for a pickup, which are often driven by road warriors, one can imagine that the threshold will be higher — certainly 400 miles and possibly 450. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said he will offer a version of the CyberTruck that will go 500 miles on a charge.

Levine said Ford could make the batteries bigger once the demand for the electric F-150 is clear. Though no one knows what sustained buyer interest there will be for electric pickups, there is an indication of initial demand: GM has said that preorders maxed out for the Hummer, with a $100 deposit, though the company did not say what that maximum was. And motorists have put down $100 deposits for 820,420 CyberTrucks, according to the Cyber Truck Owners Club, a private group that tracks orders for the coming Tesla pickup.

Sam Jaffe, managing director of Cairn Energy Research Advisors, which specializes in EVs and advanced batteries, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the electric F-150 comes out later than next year. “That they are making a [hybrid] means they are not taking it seriously,” Jaffe told me by phone. “They are throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Ford may be right that the core pickup buyer will stick with tried-and-true models like the F-150. But by looking to attract only that type of motorist, it is gambling that pickups won’t entice a large, entirely new category of buyer who wants both pizzaz and room in the back. “Rivian and GM are both taking it seriously and trying to make a business out of it,” Jaffe said. Ford has the opportunity to make an EV that will be as popular as the current F-150, but they have to show the motivation and drive to do that, and not just put out an expensive version of the current F-150.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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