There’s little evidence that 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.
“Rivian and Ford match up strategically,” said Ford CEO Jim Hackett in April. “We can learn a lot from each other.”
The match is viewed by many analysts as a coup because the company headquartered in Plymouth rebuffed a restrictive arrangement with General Motors, according to Bloomberg. Rivian is a rising darling of the tech and automotive industries as vehicle manufacturers shift toward electrification and consider electric pickups.
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.
GM CEO Mary Barra hasn’t shared details about the planned pickup, but she said that GM “will not cede our leadership” in the pickup segment, spurring much speculation about what GM is building and when it will reach consumers.
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 them today.
People who buy pickups don’t seem to be demanding EVs, so why the rush?
“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.”
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?
“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.”
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 longer to charge a battery than fill a tank.
But this week, General Motors and Bechtel, the country’s largest construction company, announced they will build thousands of fast-charging stations across the U.S. The companies have agreed to create a new company to build the network, CNN reported.
“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.