Ford F-150 Lightning: An Iconic American Pickup Truck Goes Electric

Published Sep 21, 2021

Vehicles expert Dr. David Reichmuth discusses the pros and cons of the new electric pickup truck.

In this episode

Colleen and David discuss:

  • the features of the Ford F-150 electric pickup truck
  • what role the electric F-150 can play in curbing global warming
  • what it will take to get them on the road

Segment: Genna Reed
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: A couple months ago, I saw that a tweet thread on the topic of pickup trucks was getting some traction online.

Yes… that was a truck pun.

In the thread, which many thousands of people liked and retweeted, the author, Post Culture Review, at-post-cult-rev, made the bold claim that most pickup truck owners will never have a practical reason to use them.

They also said, and I quote, ‘pickup trucks are ridiculous clown cars,’ end quote.

Now, I personally don’t think of pickups like that, but the question is a relevant one: do pickup drivers really use their vehicles for towing or to go off road?

The research firm survey cited in the tweet thread … found that the answer is definitely no. In fact, the vast majority of pickup truck owners use their trucks the way most of us use any vehicle: for commuting.

But… regardless of how people drive their trucks… they’re still among the most popular vehicles sold in the United States. Which means beyond the practical reasons one might buy a pickup truck, there’s an attachment to their image… what they represent, or how they make drivers feel. And feelings are powerful motivators for what we buy.

When I heard that Ford will be releasing an electric model of its enormous, and enormously popular, F150 pickup truck next year, I knew I had to ask one of my vehicle expert colleagues to help me sort through what this could mean. For pickup truck drivers, for electric vehicle markets, for the auto market as a whole.

Senior Engineer David Reichmuth joined me to talk about whether we should all buy new electric F150s… —spoiler alert: probably not— what it means to design a vehicle from scratch as fully electric… and how you might be able to hook up your fridge to your new electric pickup.

Colleen: David, welcome to the podcast.

David: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Colleen: So, I was excited to see that Ford is planning to make an F-150 Electric pickup truck. Are there currently any electric pickup trucks on the market?

David: There are no electric pickup trucks currently on the market from a major manufacturer. And, that's a big deal, because pickup trucks are the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. And the F-150, in particular, is the top-selling vehicle model in the United States. So it's really important that we get larger vehicles that are electric out there. They're not there yet. But with Ford and other companies promising EVs, you know, that's a big deal.

Colleen: So I seem to recall a few years ago, Tesla had a concept pickup/Mad Max type of pickup truck. Did that ever happen or is that in the works?

David: Yes. So Tesla announced their cybertruck, which, yeah, it could be Mad Max, I think of it more as Blade Runner, but either way, it was very futuristic, definitely polarizing style. And that's still in the works. But, you know, well, it hasn't been released and they haven't set a release date. Now for Ford's F-150 and for another company called Rivian that's an electric vehicle only startup, they should be starting deliveries later this year. So there are a couple other electric pickup trucks that are at least closer to being on the market.

Colleen: Well, that's exciting news to hear that they are coming onto the market. You know, it's interesting that you described the Tesla pickup as a polarizing design. I felt that when I saw it. But what are the differences in terms of how electric pickups, you know, how they'll drive? How much power they have, all the features of a pickup truck that we Americans embrace, how will the electric version compare?

David: Yeah, that's a good question. And to your first point about how they look, it's definitely a conscious decision from the one hand, a traditional automaker like Ford that wants to come up with something that looks like an F-150 truck. And that people will associate with the gasoline F-150. And then trying to layer on these other features. Whereas, Tesla definitely wants people to know that this is a Tesla. And it's not like other cars. But in both cases, you're right, they do have features because they're electric vehicles. And some of those features are, of course, the obvious, they don't have tailpipe emissions, they don't require gasoline or diesel. But there's also some advantages, better performance, so, much better acceleration than a gasoline vehicle.

And then there's some other advantages of the EV that come from designing the car, or truck as an electric vehicle from the start. So for the F-150, for example, because they've removed the engine and essentially all the other equipment from the front of the vehicle, it now has a lockable front trunk. And that may not make a big difference on a car. But when you think about a pickup truck, the gasoline F-150, when it comes off the flood doesn't have a place where you can secure a lockable compartment. You have to add a toolbox or you have to add a bed cover if you want lockable storage. And so that's an advantage of going to the electric drive because you don't have the engine up there. One other thing that Ford has emphasized in a lot of its marketing early is that because it's an electric vehicle because it has that large battery there, it can actually be a source of electric power for a home or for a job site or for a tailgate. And so that is something that they're really trying to play up the advantages of the electric vehicle.

Colleen: So let me make sure I understand that. Are you saying that the electric battery could be used in other ways, other than just being the battery for the car, for the truck?

David: Right. So you have this large capacity battery in the truck and if it's sitting in your driveway, what they're offering is the ability to, with the correct hookup you have to have an electrician install the correct hookup, but the ability to plug know, normally, you would plug your your electric pickup truck into the power from your house to recharge it, instead go the other way. If the power to your house is shut off because of a storm, because of other kinds of power outages, then take that power out of the truck and power your home. And they're promising for the largest range electric F-150 to be able to power a house for two to three days off of a pickup truck.

Colleen: So it's essentially, it's a generator?

David: Yeah, and unlike all the other generators out there that run off of gasoline or propane, this is a zero emission generator and something you can just press a button in an app presumably, and then just turn on your house. And they're also promising... that the vehicle has power outlets on the vehicle. So that you could plug in say construction tools into the vehicle instead of using a separate generator.

Colleen: That's a really cool feature.

David: Yeah. And a lot of these things come from designing the vehicle as an electric vehicle from the start. So things like a locking front trunk or some of the performance characteristics only come if you design it as an EV from the start. I think that's something important about what Ford has done with this vehicle compared to one of the early electric vehicles. So Ford, I think it was about five or seven years ago, came out with the Ford Focus EV. So the Ford Focus is a small car. And they made an electric vehicle version of it, which essentially, they took a gasoline vehicle and they just added electric vehicle components. And it wasn't a very good electric vehicle because it wasn't designed as an electric vehicle. It was designed as a gasoline vehicle. And so that was a really poor effort from Ford, I think, if you look back at it objectively. Now when they're starting from scratch and saying, "How do we design this as an electric vehicle?" Now you get these vehicles that are much better. And it puts Ford and puts other companies that are doing this in the position of they've gone from buy this car despite it being an electric vehicle to buy this car or truck because it's an electric vehicle, because it's better. And I think that's where we need all the companies to go, is highlight why these cars are better rather than you're making some sort of sacrifice.

Colleen: So how far will the F-150 be able to go on a charge?

David: So the F-150 electric version is coming out in two models, one that gets 230 miles of range, and then the other one that they're targeting 300 miles of range.

Colleen: So looking at the big picture, transportation is the biggest contributor to the climate crisis and the biggest contributor to polluting the air that we breathe. How will electric pickups help reduce emissions? And will that be significant enough to get us on the right path?

David: Yeah. So that's a great question. And I mean, it's really one of the primary reasons why we want to transition from gasoline and diesel to electric vehicles is to reduce emissions. And so there's some good news here, and there's some bad news. The good news is that the Ford F-150 electric version is going to have much lower emissions when we look at climate changing emissions than the gasoline version. And so, when I've looked at the total emissions both from getting electricity to the pickup truck, so whether that's burning coal or natural gas, or all the other sources we use in the United States, and then compare that to the process of getting crude oil and getting gasoline to filling stations and then burning it, of course, in the vehicle. We see much lower global warming emissions for the electric version.

So in California, my estimate... Now, this is an estimate because we don't know the exact efficiency numbers for the electric F-150. But if you're in California, driving that F-150 would make...the electric version would have emissions equal to an 85 mile per gallon gasoline vehicle. And that's compared to the gasoline version, which at best gets around 20 miles per gallon. So it's about a quarter of the emissions for the electric vehicle compared to the gasoline version. And for over 70% of the people in the U.S. driving the electric version of the Ford F-150 should make less than half of the global warming emissions to the gasoline model.

Colleen: And, what’s the bad news?

The bad news is that we don't know the official numbers yet. But the F-150 electric version would probably be one of the least efficient electric vehicles on the market when it comes up for sale. And so for people that need a pickup truck, we want them to switch from the gasoline to the electric version. But if you just need a car, I'd much rather have people go to a more efficient electric vehicle than go from a gasoline car to an electric pickup truck if they don't need the features of the pickup truck. If you're not going to be towing things, if you're not going to be using the cargo bed, then yeah,...we really want to make sure that people choose the most efficient vehicle that suits their transportation needs.

Colleen: Well, David, it's a little bit of a double-edged sword if they're gonna make the EV so cool with being able to plug things in and power your house if the power goes out, people are gonna want them.

David: That's true. And so some of those features, a lot of the features will come to other cars, the smaller cars or smaller SUVs or minivans. And so that's what we need people to have more electric vehicle options so that it's not a choice between five or's not a choice between five or six electric vehicle models. I mean, right now, there are 40 to 50 models, but a lot of them are very low volume electric vehicle models. We want the same sort of choices that you have in the gasoline vehicle market. And that way, you wouldn't be saying, "Well, I want an EV that you can use as backup power, but my only option is the Ford F-150." We need to be in a place where there can have those same features and get a hatchback if that's what really you'd need for driving.

Colleen: Right. I was being a little bit tongue in cheek because I had been thinking before we started this interview that an EV pickup might be a hard sell. But the features that you've mentioned are really pretty appealing. Do you have a sense of how electric pickup trucks are gonna play on the market? Do you think there will be widescale adoption?

David: It's hard to say exactly what will happen. I think there's some places where it will definitely make sense or be more popular early. Definitely for fleet users of pickups, or commercial users of pickups, Ford is making a lower cost, slightly lower range version for the commercial market with less comfort features that you don't need for that market. And I think those users, it would make a lot of sense for fleets and the commercial users, where the cost of fuel is an important parameter, and they can make those sort of purchasing decisions looking at the dollars and cents. I think they are advertising the backup power a lot. And in places like, well, where I live, I mean, last year, we lost power for days at a time with wildfire safety shut offs. And obviously, places like in Texas that had multi-day power outages, the promise of being able to power your house with your car would probably be very enticing. But on the flip side, there probably will be a significant part of the market that is... will be less interested in looking at EVs or just doesn't consider themselves an EV buyer.

And so I think that will be something that all the manufacturers will have to start working on, is how to sell electric vehicles effectively. They've put an incredible amount of money into trying to sell and trying to convince people that they need inefficient large SUVs and pickup trucks. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants. I watch and listen to many of their games. And I don't know how many advertisements I've seen for big SUVs and pickup trucks highlighting how you need one to get to the top of some remote mountain peak or through a forest. Even though 95% of them, probably the most extreme driving is there's a pothole on the way to Costco.

Colleen: Are they planning for this to be a mainstream product?

David: I think they are. I think they are looking at this as something they're going to try to sell in volume. Now, on the other hand, the F-150 is the largest selling vehicle in the U.S. market. So, they still are probably gonna sell a lot of gasoline F-150s. But it does look like they are trying to make an effort to make this a vehicle they're actually trying to sell. Which Ford in the past has sold the cars like the Focus EV as just a compliance vehicle. Other manufacturers like Honda have done that in California where they just sell a minimum number of vehicles to meet regulatory requirements and call it a day. I think this is something that Ford is actually going to try to sell as a real product.

Colleen: Now, you mentioned Rivian and Tesla as other companies that are planning to make EV pickup trucks. Are there other more mainstream car manufacturers that are hopping on board and are going to follow suit?

David: Yeah. So GM is gonna come out with the Hummer EV which I believe does have sort of a pickup-like version coming out. And they're also talking about electrifying some of their other pickup models. So we may see Chevy and GMC pickup trucks with electric versions, though the timing is a little bit unclear on that. The company that owns Dodge and RAM, which is called Stellantis now is talking...they've come out with a version of one of their Jeep products with a plugin hybrid. And I think they've talked about electrifying their models, but it's definitely looking a little bit further off in the future for those companies. And then there's some really some laggards, Toyota in particular. Toyota often...people think of Toyota and they think of the Prius, but Toyota sells an awful lot of Tacoma pickup trucks in the U.S., and they have been very resistant to going with fully electric vehicles. For companies like that, that will take a change in their thinking.

Colleen: So are there things that we can do to try to...let's see, shall I say rev things up a little bit and get more EV pickup trucks and more EV cars on the market?

David: Yeah. So there's a couple of things that I think about, one, is things that we can do to encourage or in some cases force the manufacturers to move quicker to electric vehicles. And so things like both federal and state regulations are an important tool. So in California, we have the zero emission vehicle regulations that require sales of electric vehicles, and those regulations have been adopted by 11 other states in the nation. And then at the federal level, there's the fuel economy standards. And just recently, there's an announcement from President Biden on looking at new, more stringent vehicle standards for emissions. And electric vehicles can be part of the way that companies meet those standards.

So regulation is part of it. Investing in infrastructure for charging is also going to be important. So the more places there are for people to charge means that it's gonna be easier to take longer trips in electric vehicles, and reduce some of the worry that people have in buying electric vehicles. "Am I gonna be able to drive across country in this vehicle?" Yeah, it's more of a theoretical consideration, really, for a lot of people. I mean, I'm not gonna drive cross country. I don't have any plans to. But still, people want to be able to know they can take their car wherever they want to go in the U.S. And having more charging stations between cities, between major areas, is going to help. Money for infrastructure is also gonna help in solving the problem of getting charging to people that can't charge at home.

Now, if you have a garage, or a driveway that you can get electric power to, it's probably pretty straightforward to charge an electric vehicle. If you live in an apartment building, or a place where you have only street parking, it might be really tough for you to charge where you live. And so investing in charging solutions for apartment buildings and for these other cases is gonna be important too, to make sure that there's more potential customers for those electric vehicles.

Colleen: What kind of solution would there be for an apartment building, or if you have on-street parking only?

David: Yeah. So on-street parking is the toughest because the solution would likely be having more fast charging stations, and higher power fast charging stations so that you could, you know, once a week or so go to a charging station and get a quick charge. For apartment buildings, there are options in terms of getting charging into those parking lots or parking structures. I will say it's a lot easier, though, if you do it from the start. And so that's something that we should be looking at is... Sorry, that's something that especially local governments and state governments should be looking at, is revising building codes so that when you build a new parking garage, at the very minimum, you leave space, you put in conduit so that you can run the wiring for charging stations, even if you don't put them in right now. You know, it's a lot easier to leave space or put conduit in concrete than try to go back and put in these charging stations. So especially for the stuff that we're building now, you know, realizing that those parking spaces are going to need power.

Colleen: What sort of pickup truck future do you dream about? Paint the picture for me, what do you wanna see in the next few years?

David: Gosh. So, I mean, obviously, we want to eliminate as many tailpipes as we can. And so turning all of those pickups into electric vehicles would be great for the environment and for trying to slow down climate change. I especially would love to see that in the commercial segment, in the fleet segment. where it just is a no brainer just from a dollar and cents point of view where we don't have to convince people that it makes sense. I think that's the place where really, it seems like that's where we need to see it. I guess the other thing is that we do need to...I would love to see the manufacturers shift their marketing so that they're not trying to get everyone into an oversized vehicle. You know, if you look at the people that actually need pickup trucks, it's probably a much smaller fraction of the market than the number of people that buy pickup trucks. And so trying to find a way to change the marketing of vehicles in general so that we get people into the vehicle that actually serves their needs rather than what they're being told is their need.

Making pickups electric is great for those, for the people that need pickups. Making minivans and SUVs electric is great for people that need vehicles of that size. It's not great if everyone trades in their Prius for an electric pickup truck.

Colleen: Right. How are they marketing the F-150 EV?

David: So I've seen them market it in a number of ways, one on the performance and being electric vehicle. But what I've seen more of is really marketing one of the features the ability to get power from the battery to not just to the wheels, but to power your house during a power outage. Or even...

Colleen: Yeah, these are really cool...I mean, that is like so cool. I can imagine plugging in all sorts of things.

David: Yeah. And even Ford even put together an infographic that showed how you could use the power from the car, or from the truck as a portable power source. So they had an example of like, "Well, you could use it if you're framing a house." It has 10, 120 volt outlets on the truck. And you could run a miter saw, a circular saw, a hammer drill, two air compressors and some floodlights is their example for how you could use it at a construction site.

Colleen: That's more outlets than I have, you know, well, I wanna say in my house but like definitely in my shed.

David: Yeah. And they also gave the example of how you could throw what they call an extreme tailgate party. So you could run a 20-foot projection TV, a portable hot tab, a PA system, a portable air conditioner, refrigerator, and two blenders. So that's maybe less practical but more fun way to use the power coming off of that because on the most capable version, you can get almost 10 kilowatts of power from the truck to devices.

Colleen: This is sounding pretty extreme. Wow. Well, I'm looking forward to seeing the ads on TV when we get closer to rolling out this EV. That's amazing.

David: Yeah, it's interesting. I've actually seen quite a few advertisements on the San Francisco Giants games that I watch promoting the Ford F-150 Lightning. So it's not out there yet, but they do look like they're at least putting some marketing dollars behind this vehicle right now.

Colleen: David, thank you for joining me on the podcast. This was a really interesting conversation. There are some pretty exciting things about EV pickups that I did not know about. And I hope we do see them on the market as soon as possible.

David: Thanks. Thanks for having me here today. It's great talking about electric vehicles. There's nothing I love to do better.

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