These are heady times in the electric vehicle world—folks have been saying for years that the launch of a viable electric pickup truck would be the turning point for EV adoption, and that historic event now appears to be less than a year away.
In fact, several e-pickups are scheduled to hit the roads soon, and their makers are targeting several different groups of buyers. The Rivian R1T is aimed at the sporty set, and the Lordstown Endurance is gunning for the commercial fleet market. But the two models everyone’s talking about are Ford’s F-150 Lightning and Tesla’s Cybertruck, and these two couldn’t be more different, both in their design and in terms of the type of buyer that seems likely to bite.
After months of conflicting signals, Tesla recently sent an official email to some Cybertruck reservation-holders, saying, “The Cybertruck will start production in late 2021.” This news broke shortly after Ford’s unveiling of its F-150 Lightning, which is expected to begin deliveries early next year. The stage is set for the greatest pickup truck smackdown of all time.
Which vision of the electric future is going to win the day? The tried-and-true truck from Detroit, or the sassy, stainless-steel sci-fi Cybertruck from Silicon Valley (by way of Texas)?
The two vehicles represent opposite ends of the design spectrum. From the outside, the F-150 Lightning seems designed to look exactly like the rest of Ford’s expansive F-150 lineup—many exterior details, such as mirrors, are identical to those used on today’s gas-burning pickup. Inside, however, the electric F-150 is quite different. Ford designed a brand-new frame to accommodate a large, flat battery pack, and it added independent rear suspension. The new e-pickup will have a spacious (14 cubic feet), lockable front trunk with a power-operated hood and a drain plug.
Tesla took the opposite approach in designing the Cybertruck, asking how you would design a utilitarian vehicle if you had never seen a pickup truck before. The stainless steel body panels are almost indestructible (the windows, not so much), and never need painting. The angular body shape not only looks futuristic, but is surprisingly aerodynamic.
Of course, the two vehicles also have a lot in common. Both will be, for want of a better word, badass, with plenty of payload, plenty of towing capacity, and acceleration worthy of a sports car. Both will support DC fast charging, and both will be able to export electricity for tools, camping or emergency backup power. Not to be outdone by Tesla, Ford will add a large touchscreen and over-the-air update capability.
Conventional wisdom is that these two visions of the pickup truck’s future will appeal to two very different groups of buyers. The “typical truck buyer,” (whoever that is), is assumed to be addicted to the tried and true. It’s going to be hard enough to convince this ball cap-wearing, ‘baccy-dipping cowpoke to accept a truck that lacks the roar of an engine and the clouds of black smoke—he’s not even going to look at something that doesn’t resemble the pickup his daddy drove.
We’re not so sure about that. When Tesla first unveiled the Cybertruck, most people’s first impression was that Elon Musk had finally lost his mind, but that changed once we started reading about the specs and the innovative features. A similar evolution might just take place over the next few months, as we get details about the production Cybertruck.
It may turn out that what Mr. and Ms. Typical Truck Buyer really value is not sameness, but performance and toughness, and the Cybertruck won’t be found wanting in those categories. Furthermore, while it’s undoubtedly true that many Americans buy trucks based on the social identity they signal, many others buy them for practical reasons. A whole lot of drivers choose pickups because they need them for work or for play, and they may not make as much of Cybertruck’s novel appearance as the media has.
On the other side of the car-buying divide, there are some buyers for whom only a Tesla will do. Mashable’s Sasha Lekach overstated the case when she called Cybertruck “an inside joke for loyal, longtime Tesla fanatics and early EV adopters,” but it’s undoubtedly true that Cybertruck will attract a certain number of tech-savvy, Left Coast denizens, many of whom may never have bought a pickup before.
Of the two trucks, the F-150 is more likely to attract buyers who’ve never considered an EV in the past. Ford seems well aware of this, and is already taking steps to reassure those drivers about their greatest concern: charging. “We redesigned [the F-150 Lightning] to be friendly to first-time battery electric vehicle owners,” said Darren Palmer, Ford’s Battery Electric Vehicle General Manager for North America. The e-truck comes with dual onboard chargers, and supports CCS fast charging at a maximum rate of 150 kW (although it remains to be seen what a typical real-world rate will be, as reviewer John Voelcker pointed out).
Ford has taken several other anti-range-anxiety measures. Ford has been offering its EV buyers two years of complimentary access to the FordPass Charging Network. (Strictly speaking, this isn’t a new charging network, but rather a sort of roaming arrangement that provides access to several existing networks, which collectively include some 63,000 charging points across the US.)
Ford is also working to make the F-150’s range forecasting feature more accurate. Range estimators are notoriously inaccurate—some EV owners call them “guess-ometers.” Ford says the F-150’s improved range estimator will take into account factors such as the weight of the truck’s payload and/or trailer, terrain and weather.
The advent of the Lightning may give a welcome impetus to the deployment of public charging stations in more rural areas. “If any vehicle is going to push the agenda of setting up rural infrastructure, it’s going to be the F-150 Lightning,” Jessica Caldwell, Executive Director of Insights at Edmunds, told Mashable.
Early indications are that both these electric pickups are going to be big sellers. Tesla claims to have 650,000 reservations for the Cybertruck. Ford racked up 45,000 reservations for the F-150 Lightning in the few days following the launch. This represents about 8 percent of the number of gas-powered F-150 trucks Ford sold in 2020.
So, which of the contenders is going to triumph? Both. Even if the F-150 far outsells Cybertruck, it will still be a win for Tesla. Despite what many superficial observers assume, Tesla welcomes the success of EVs from other automakers. The California carmaker’s mission is to get every driver into an EV, of whatever make.
And as I explained in an earlier column, EVs represent an alternative to gas cars, not a separate auto market, so more EV sales by other brands are likely to lead to more sales for Tesla, too. However the pickup smackdown turns out, the results are bound to be good news for car buyers, the auto industry, and anyone who likes to breathe clean air.