Who needs an electric pickup? Why?
There’s no evidence consumers are clamoring for battery-powered pickups, but the auto industry and investment communities can’t stop talking about them.
Just this year Amazon and Ford have led investments topping $1.2 billion in Plymouth-based electric vehicle startup Rivian. Rivian’s EV pickup program also led to a technology sharing deal with Ford.
On top of that, GM and Ford are racing to sell their own electric pickups. Tesla has promised one, too, in keeping with the EV specialist’s record of promising everything except consistent profits.
That’s a lot of action for a type of vehicle whose track record so far consists of the short-lived Ford Ranger, a 1998-2002 compact pickup with electric systems so basic you couldn’t sell a lawn mower with ‘em today.
There’s no evidence the people who buy pickups are clamoring for EVs. Why the rush?
If you build them, will anybody come?
“Who wants them?” IHS Markit analyst Stephanie Brinley asked. “Lifestyle and luxury pickup buyers still want their trucks to be able to do pickup stuff,” like off-roading, and long-haul towing four-horse trailers and fifth-wheel campers all day. “An EV pickup still needs to perform.”
True, but whether from fear of missing out, covering all bases, or keeping options open, automakers developing EVs can’t resist pickups. Mid- and full-size pickups are the biggest part of the U.S. vehicle market. They generate huge profits and accounted for more than 2.9 million sales in 2018. That could grow this year as the new Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator lift the segment despite a likely drop in total vehicle sales.
Could pickups be the ticket to the high-volume sales that have eluded electric vehicles so far? Perhaps more important to pickup giants like Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler, could a modest slice of the pickup business help pay for the massive investment developing electric SUVs and luxury vehicles?
A case of Lite beer?
“Electric-vehicle demand, for all sorts of reasons, is perpetually stuck in the low single digits” of market share, said Eric Noble president of The Carlab, an Orange, California, consultant.
“Pickups are, by far, the largest segment in North America, so even a small percentage has the potential to break records.
“Of course, smaller, lighter EVs are more efficient than pickups, but that’s never been what consumers want, to scoot around in purgatorial Fiat 500s, Chevy Bolts and Nissan Leafs. Buyers want big, red-blooded vehicles that are ready for anything, and they’d like them guilt-free. What is it about a case of Lite beer is so hard for (automakers) to understand?”
Rivian makes no pretense that its pickup will be a work truck. The startup based in suburban Detroit intends to build a luxury lifestyle vehicle, and the pitch comes straight from Noble’s playbook.
“Rivian vehicles will appeal to people who are looking for outstanding performance and zero emissions. The brand will appeal to people who enjoy getting out into nature,” Rivian communications chief Mike McHale said. “A unique combination of up to 400-mile range, all wheel drive, leading ground clearance and modern design means our vehicles can really support all your adventures.”
Fleet electric trucks
Four hundred miles may sound like a lot, but it’s not even a full tank on the highway for a diesel Ford F-150 pickup. Electric vehicles’ torque is ideal for towing and maybe off-roading, but EVs haven’t overcome the fact that that it takes far longer to charge a battery than fill a tank.
“Consumers don’t express strong interest in buying EV pickups, but fleets might,” Autotrader executive analyst Michelle Krebs said. “EV pickups may best be suited for commercial fleets, such as those owned by energy companies.”
Fleets operating in clearly defined areas, such as metro Detroit, could be ideal. Short distances and a good charging infrastructure might also make EV pickups practical for construction and mining companies.
“We are constantly looking at new ways to better serve truck customers and are developing an all-electric F-150,” Ford spokesman Mike Levine said, a statement that manages to simultaneously be definitive and vague enough that Ford doesn’t have to go out on a limb and say what the business case is for electric pickups.
Automakers may figure out if there is one at the same time consumers do.