Accompanied by throbbing electronic music and the requisite fog machines, the electric Ford F-150 Lightning made its debut last week in Dearborn, Michigan, a potential turning point in the growth of the electric vehicle market.
The gasoline version of the F-150 has long been the top-selling vehicle in the United States, so Ford’s decision to use that name for the new truck is significant.
But the most striking thing for me about the F-150 Lightning wasn’t it’s name but the way that Ford is selling the model’s advantages over a gasoline model, even as the company gets nearly all its sales from gasoline-powered vehicles.
The Lightning has a base price of $39,974 and a range of 230 miles, and will go on sale in spring 2022. It is one of at least seven all-electric trucks that will be hitting the market, including the Tesla Cybertruck, the debut of several start-up brands, like Rivian and Bollinger, and an all-electric version of the Chevrolet Silverado.
It is difficult to cut through the auto industry’s hype machine, and Ford hasn’t disclosed important information, like sales expectations. That said, Ford has said enough to give truck buyers a lot to digest as they go through the long period between last week’s unveiling and when the model arrives at dealerships.
Here are seven takeaways about the F-150 and this moment in the transition to cleaner vehicles:
1. We’ll have to wait for an answer to one of the most important questions.
One of the key questions about the electric F-150 is, “Will existing truck buyers want to buy this thing?” If just 5 percent of gasoline F-150 buyers decided to get the Lightning, the new model would be a smash hit. Surveys have shown a broad readiness by drivers to consider an EV for their next vehicle, but it takes a leap to go from considering one to buying one.
The pickup category is even more complicated, because a significant share of buyers is using the vehicle for work, which leads to a different decision-making process from that of a commuter who only needs the truck bed to haul the occasional couch.
Ford is going to publicize early reservations for the Lightning—which only cost $100 to make—as evidence that truck buyers are interested. But we really won’t know if this is a successful product until the model becomes widely available.
The stakes are high. Electric vehicles represent about 2 percent of U.S. sales of new cars and light trucks, a level that is going to need to skyrocket if the country is to have any chance of meeting the emissions-cutting goals of the Paris Agreement.
2. The most significant buyer for this truck may be companies, not individuals.
Auto analysts have said for years that some of the best opportunities to increase sales of electric vehicles are through sales to companies and government agencies, as opposed to individuals, allowing buyers to better manage fuel costs and burnish their environmental credentials.
Ford has a version of the F-150 Lightning, the “Lightning Pro,” that is aimed at corporate fleets.
“I think it’s less about selling one truck to one individual retail buyer initially than it is about selling a whole bunch of these trucks to one company as a fleet,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for AutoTrader.com. “The fleets will be what carries the day for Ford.”
The “Lightning Pro” has features that would help businesses manage costs, like software that allows for tracking electricity use across the fleet and monitoring how much charge each vehicle has remaining. Ford is emphasizing how it can work with fleet owners to figure out the potential for cost savings on maintenance and fuel by switching to EVs.
But Ford will have competition for sales to companies, including from Ohio-based Lordstown Motors, a start-up that has said it is focusing on fleet sales.
3. The vehicle’s ability to power a house is potentially a big selling point.
Ford’s publicity blitz included a lengthy discussion of how the batteries in the F-150 Lightning can be used to power equipment at a worksite, entertainment at a tailgate party or backup power to an entire house during a power outage.
David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he has never seen a rollout of an electric vehicle in the United States that puts such a heavy emphasis on secondary uses for the batteries.
He sees these other uses as a way for Ford to sell the F-150 Lightning as having features that are better than a gasoline model, as opposed to just being an acceptable alternative to gasoline.
Ford says the vehicle’s batteries can provide backup power for a house that can last up to three days on a full charge. To make that work, customers would need to install special equipment to allow the batteries to export power to the house, which would be an additional cost. Customers also may need to upgrade their electrical system.
4. Sunrun scored a marketing coup with its Ford partnership on the F-150 Lightning.
For people who want to use their F-150 Lightning for backup power, Ford announced a partnership with Sunrun to install the necessary equipment in customers’ garages.
San Francisco-based Sunrun is the largest rooftop solar company in the United States, but it’s influence is obviously small compared to the global reach and name recognition of Ford. By piggybacking onto the debut of this new truck, Sunrun can promote its energy storage products and become known to a larger audience than before.
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Even if only a small share of truck customers end up engaging with Sunrun, the company will have succeeded in making itself part of a high-profile moment in the transition to clean energy.
5. I don’t expect much of a rivalry between this vehicle and Tesla’s Cybertruck.
Whenever an automaker launches a new EV, there is a natural tendency to compare it to whatever Tesla is selling, since Tesla is the global EV leader.
In this case, the closest thing Tesla will have to the F-150 Lightning is the Cybertruck. Tesla has said the Cybertruck will go on sale late this year, so this model, which looks like something out of “Blade Runner,” will probably have a head start on the F-150.
But I don’t think there are many customers who will be deciding between the electric F-150 and the Cybertruck, even though they both are electric trucks with base prices of less than $40,000. The Cybertruck is a showy vehicle for someone who wants to tell the world they’re driving an EV, while the F-150 could be mistaken on the road for a truck that runs on gasoline.
Also, as Krebs said, businesses are probably going to be a key customer base for the F-150, and I can’t imagine many companies wanting a fleet of Cybertrucks.
6. Don’t pay much attention to the starting price.
During the event in Dearborn, the giant video screens showed the new model’s starting price of $39,974, a number that is within reach of many buyers. But the base price does not reflect what customers are likely to pay. I expect that most buyers are going to want the “XLT” version, which has extended battery range, along with other comfort and technology features—and a starting price of $52,974. For people who want even more features, there are the “Lariat” and “Platinum” versions, for which Ford has not yet disclosed prices.
The prices also don’t take into account tax credits. Ford buyers can still qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, a benefit that has phased out for Tesla and General Motors because those companies have sold enough EVs to use up the credit. Some states have tax credits on top of the federal credit.
For perspective, the gasoline version of the F-150 has a base price of $28,940, but most customers also get additional features that increase the price.
7. The F-150 Lightning’s unveiling was awesome and ridiculous.
Ford’s event for the new F-150 was visually overwhelming, starting with a 2-minute video with wide-screen images of desert landscapes, rural highways and a drone shot of a bald eagle perched on a leafless tree, looking right at the camera.
The images, accompanied by narration that was serious almost to the point of parody, had zero subtlety.
I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was something awe-inspiring about the way Ford was selling the heck out of this truck.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
California Moves Toward Offshore Wind Development: The Biden Administration has announced plans to hold an auction next year for leases to develop offshore wind leases off of California. The waters are so deep that companies will need to use floating wind turbines tethered by cables, as Anna M. Phillips, Rosanna Xia and Sammy Roth report for the Los Angeles Times. This latest step was years in the making and will require developers to overcome some technical challenges, as Emma Foehringer Merchant writes for Inside Climate News.
Solar Power Component Costs Increase: One of the near constants in the expansion of solar power is that the cost of parts continues to decrease. So it is jarring to see a recent increase in the price of polysilicon, one of the fundamental components, as Dan Murtaugh and Brian Eckhouse report from Bloomberg Green. Prices also are up for steel, aluminum and copper, all of which are used in solar equipment. If the high prices persist, it could lead to delays in projects.
Illinois Clean Energy Law Has Fallen Flat: When Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2016, it was supposed to create a solar power industry almost from scratch, while preserving existing jobs at nuclear power plants. Five years later, Illinois leaders are contending with the reality that the law has fallen short of expectations for solar power, at the same time that Exelon Corp., the owner of nuclear power plants, is requesting a fresh bailout, according to an article I wrote in with Brett Chase at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Group Connected to Duke Energy Fights North Carolina Market Plan: North Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the state utility regulators to study reforms to the electricity market in the state, an idea that the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, doesn’t like. Duke is a donor to a group that has mounted an advertising campaign publicizing “the ugly truth” of market reforms, as Catherine Morehouse reports for Utility Dive. The push against the bill is happening at a time when environmental groups and consumer advocates are frustrated with Duke’s proposal to build natural gas power plants that probably would need to close before they reach the end of their normal lifespan if Duke follows its plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to email@example.com.