Stop Worrying and Love the F-150 Lightning
Here are seven ways Ford’s first electric pickup truck signals that decarbonization has entered a new era.
1. Start with the price—how could you not? The Ford F-150 Lightning, the new electric version of the ur–American pickup truck, will go on sale next spring for $39,974. Because Ford vehicles still qualify for the federal EV tax credit, most Americans will pay a little less than $32,500 for this truck.
Thirty-two grand after subsidies—an astonishing price. For years, climate-concerned transportation experts have sought to make electric vehicles cost the same or less than their internal-combustion cousins. The F-150 Lightning is nearly there. In January, the average new car purchase in the United States crossed the $40,000 mark; the Lightning is well below that bar, and inhabits the same neighborhood as Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid, Jeep’s Gladiator pickup, and the Honda Odyssey. After subsidies, the electric F-150 is only about $4,000 more than its gas-burning twin. The entry-level electric model claims 563 horsepower and a respectable 230 miles of range, and it immediately sits among the least expensive electric vehicles on the market: Tesla’s Model 3, with 260 miles of range, sells for $39,490 (but does not qualify for federal subsidies).
2. But it isn’t any electric car. It’s a Ford F-150, the country’s best-selling vehicle in every year since Donkey Kong debuted and Ronald Reagan entered the White House. One in every 16 vehicles on American roads is an F-150, and it is the most used vehicle in 39 states, according to a Boston Consulting Group study commissioned by Ford. “There’s lots of different kinds of sodas; there’s only one Coke. There’s lots of different electric pickup trucks, but there’s only one F-150,” Jim Farley, Ford’s chief executive, told me, which may sound immodest but actually borders on understatement: Receipts from F-Series trucks alone exceed Coca-Cola’s annual corporate revenue; that of every major U.S. sports league, combined; or Disney’s global theme-park business. According to the same BCG study, 8 percent of the U.S. labor force uses an F-Series truck in their daily job.
Or more relevant, for our purposes: Ford sells about 900,000 F-150s every year; all automakers collectively sold 250,000 new EVs total last year. “This may be one of the important products in decarbonization,” Tim Latimer, an energy-industry veteran, tweeted last week. (He is now the chief executive of the geothermal company Fervo.) An electric F-150 opens up an enormous new market for EVs and signals that climate-friendly technology has reached the soybean fields and construction sites of middle America.
It is, as such, almost miraculously simpatico with President Joe Biden’s climate strategy. Biden has pitched climate action as a kind of infrastructure upgrade, and soaked the urgent scientific language of climate change in a rugged American savor. Ford has essentially done the same. (Biden and Ford aren’t so different as brands: old-school American standards with union roots that must address an older, working-class audience and a younger, more professional class at the same time.) So it made sense that Biden essentially debuted the car yesterday during a speech at a Michigan plant where UAW members will assemble the truck, accidentally disclosing the truck’s zero-to-60 acceleration time (4.4 seconds). The two need each other: Biden needs mainstream EVs such as the F-150, and Ford needs Democrats to build thousands of charging stations nationwide, so that consumers feel like buying an EV is actually an option.
3. But forget about the price or the aesthetics: We need a truck like this. Not so long ago, America’s coal-heavy electricity sector posed the greatest threat to the long-term health and stability of the planet’s climate. Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, could put a Friend of Coal license plate on his Tesla and mean it. Then the whirlwind of the 2010s swept through—today, 40 percent of U.S. electricity comes from renewables or zero-power sources—and now the transportation sector is the country’s dirtiest. America’s gasoline-powered cars and light trucks are the main reason. Cars and light trucks now contribute about 20 percent of U.S. emissions, more than any other economic activity.
Mass transit accounts for about 1 percent of passenger miles traveled by land in the United States. Even if Americans quadrupled their use of public transportation, most travel would happen by car or truck, whether electric or gas-powered. And even if the country saw a revolution in urban and suburban land use to discourage driving—I am praying for it as much as anyone—private vehicles would remain essential to rural living. We need electric vehicles.
4. An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. “Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time,” Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk.” Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.
The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.
5. Chemically speaking, decarbonization—the move away from carbon-based fossil fuels—is a shift to less dense forms of energy. Gasoline, for its many flaws, contains an enormous amount of potential energy in a very small amount of mass. Transitioning away from it means, in practical terms, that electric vehicles will be much heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. The F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, about the same as the gargantuan Hummer H2 of the mid-2000s. The battery alone is 1,800 pounds.
These are hefty, dangerous vehicles. Ford has said that it will send software updates to its EVs over the air, and that it will soon transmit its new autonomous-driving feature, BlueCruise, to its EV fleet. But the tonnage of the Lightning, specifically, means that it must especially prioritize advanced safety features, sensors, and auto-braking. Otherwise pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller and lighter vehicles will die.
6. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the F-150 Lightning is that its target audience is not necessarily consumers. For the first time ever, Ford is selling a version of the F-150 aimed at corporate fleet managers: Think landscaping companies, HVAC-repair companies, electricians, any company that operates multiple trucks at once. Corporate fleets are, in many ways, even better suited for electrification than consumer vehicles. They are driven every day but rarely travel long distances, they benefit from the lower upkeep costs of an EV, and they are usually stored in the same place overnight—which means they can be charged overnight. Ford says that for the first time, fleet managers will be able to see the location of all their trucks on a map, and they will be able to monitor their charge levels remotely. This combination of lower fuel costs and greater workplace surveillance strikes me as all but guaranteeing the electrification of many corporate fleets.
7. And it signals a change for Ford, that most American of automakers. For the past few years, companies that specialize in one or another sector of the economy—food delivery or taxi service, for instance—have chased higher valuations by claiming to be technology companies. But the onset of electrification means that car companies will actually be technology companies, and almost content companies: Ford’s customers will spend a good part of their day looking at a screen, and Ford will constantly have to improve the experience of looking at that screen.
This is the transition, at least, that worries Farley the most. “We came from a paradigm where we sell something, a vehicle, we finance it maybe with our credit company, and then we’d see the customer four or five years later,” he said. With EVs, “suddenly we have a daily relationship with the customer.”
This mode will also free Ford from the tyranny of gas prices. But it will move it into the world of silicon and software. Earlier today, Ford’s F-150 production lines rolled to a halt because of the global semiconductor shortage. The age of fuel scarcity might be over. The material world of the new economy has just begun.
Every week, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.