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Why Ford Unveiling An Electric F-150 Is A Big Deal

Pictured is the front grill of the new Ford F-150 Lightning unveiled on Wednesday in Dearborn, Mich. The electric version of Ford's bestselling pickup truck marks a major push to get buyers to switch to electric vehicles.
Carlos Osorio
Pictured is the front grill of the new Ford F-150 Lightning unveiled on Wednesday in Dearborn, Mich. The electric version of Ford's bestselling pickup truck marks a major push to get buyers to switch to electric vehicles.

There's a lot riding on the F-150 Lightning, the all-electric pickup that Ford unveiled Wednesday.

For the company, it represents a big strategic bet on the rise of electric vehicles — one that nearly every rival automaker is also making. And it's also a symbol for the vision of America that President Biden has been promoting: made in America, pairing blue-collar roots and high-tech ambitions, fighting climate change without making compromises.

The subtext was made explicit when the president visited Ford's Rouge complex on Tuesday to tout electric vehicles in general and praise this one in particular — even taking it for a spin on the test track.

Behind all this buzz and boosterism is an incredibly daunting challenge for the auto industry. According to a report out this week from the International Energy Agency, for the energy sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, electric vehicles would need to go from 5% of global sales to 60% in less than a decade. Five years later, in 2035, all new cars would need to be electric.

Automakers such as General Motors and Volvo have openly embraced that timeline, as have governments such as the United Kingdom. But a transformation of that scale raises myriad challenges — chargers that need to be built, supply chains that need to expand, factories that need to be retooled.

And for many in the auto industry, it raises a fundamental question: Can companies make electric cars that will bring drivers on board, and fast?

Ford hopes that's where the F-150 Lightning comes in.

"There's a lot at stake here, not just for Ford, but really for the country," says Darren Palmer, Ford's head of battery electric vehicles. "This could be the point when people really notice electric [vehicles]."

Ford's not the only one hoping there's a big pool of would-be buyers who aren't interested in a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf but would happily spring for an electric version of their favorite pickup.

"That vehicle is going to come in and fill a void. And if it's affordable, I mean, it's going to be a game changer," says Shelley Francis, co-founder of EVHybridNoire, a network of diverse electric vehicle enthusiasts.

"It's the No. 1-selling vehicle in the country just across the board; it's also the No. 1-selling vehicle among African American communities," she says. "Then when you think about rural communities ... there's an opportunity for this community to be part of this conversation."

Ford's F-150 Lightning, unveiled at a ceremony on Wednesday evening, is part of a spate of electric pickups arriving on the market.

There are the startups: Rivian is targeting outdoor enthusiasts with its $75,000 truck, which is poised to start deliveries next month and win the race to be the first electric pickup to market. The futuristic Tesla Cybertruck is on the way at a much lower price point, while Lordstown Motors is focusing on business customers with its upcoming vehicle.

Meanwhile, General Motors is bringing the Hummer brand back as a top-of-the-line premium electric pickup, initially starting at more than $100,000. An electric Silverado is also in the works. And Stellantis, Chrysler's parent company, has promised a battery-powered Ram eventually.

The F-150 carries extra symbolic and economic weight. It's America's best-selling vehicle and has been for 40 years. Ford sells more than 1 million F-series trucks per year, raking in more than $40 billion annually, more than McDonald's or Nike bring in as entire companies.

But that doesn't mean that Ford enthusiasts will automatically leap at this new vehicle.

Surveys show that more than half of truck drivers are not interested in going electric, full stop.

Palmer laid out Ford's argument to skeptical V-8-loving pickup drivers using a cordless drill metaphor. It wasn't hard to convince people to switch from old battery technology to lighter, longer-running lithium-ion drills: quite the opposite.

"The functionality difference — [it] was better," Palmer says. "Everybody wanted the best tool. It's the same thing."

Ford argues that the perks of electrification will speak for themselves, such as the effortless torque that's characteristic of all electric motors and the potential for new, practical features. (The hybrid F-150 has an option that allows you to run power tools off the car's battery at a work site, for instance.)

But can the electric F-150 win over regular drivers, map a path to new profits for an entire industry and prove effective in the fight against climate change?

It's a lot of economic, political and environmental baggage for one vehicle, no matter how powerful its towing capacity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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