The company was built on gasoline engines but it’s highlighting the ways in which its new EV is a better option.
May 26, 2021
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.