Ford is electrifying its best-selling F-150 pickup. The F-150 Lightning is a pitch to rural drivers that you don’t need to be an early adopter or environmentalist for an electric vehicle to make sense.
Cole Brodine’s been driving a Chevrolet Bolt around rural central Nebraska for about a year. He’s gotten some comments about the electric car.
“At first I got a lot of guff from people around town,” Brodine, who works at the local public power district, said. “It is kind of a small car and I’m a larger guy. So a lot of people think that’s funny, like a clown car or something.”
But lately, some in the peanut gallery have been changing their tune.
“In the last few months, with gas prices really skyrocketing, I have gotten a lot of questions from some people who I thought would never buy an electric vehicle,” Brodine said. “All of a sudden they’re very interested.”
That interest in electric in the heart of the nation is good news for Ford, which rolls out its first electric pickup this spring, the F-150 Lightning. Manufacturing an electric version of its F-150 – a best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for more than 40 years – is a big bet for the company.
“The F-150 drives the majority of profits at Ford,” said John Murphy, who watches the company as an analyst at Bank of America. “And it has for some time, been the best-selling vehicle in the country for decades. It really is the cornerstone of Ford’s business.”
Trucks have symbolized the internal combustion engine, but the company’s trying to show old-school drivers how electric vehicles can work in the country.
It’s an important pitch for the future of electric vehicles, too. Rural America hosts 70% of the nation’s roads, and President Joe Biden’s goal that half of all vehicles sold in 2030 run on electricity will fall short without Midwestern drivers.
While Chevrolet and GMC have electric pickups in the works, Murphy said Ford has an edge being the first. He said all the electric trucks could bring the transformation to the middle of the country.
“Electric pickups may drive the real tipping point for electric vehicles, meaning your mainstream Midwestern truck buyer may join the forces of the early tech adopters of the Teslas on the coast to really start tipping the scale.”
The company has strived to make the Lightning a working pickup that can fit into lifestyles outside of big cities, said Wanda Young, the global chief marketing officer of Ford Pro’s commercial division.
“You cannot separate a farmer from their truck; it’s like their favorite pair of jeans,” she said. “And we see so many of our customers coming in from all different kinds of vocations from plumbers to landscapers to electricians, and they are all talking about how to make this transition to electric.”
The Lightning can tow up to 10,000 pounds with an extended range battery of 320 miles. The standard battery has a 230-mile range. It’s got sockets for plugging in tools when out in the field or on a job site. It will even power a house for up to three days.
Brad Brodine is Cole’s father and farms in central Nebraska. He’s intrigued by the truck’s features, but would want to see the F-150 Lightning’s hauling abilities and horsepower in the real world before putting any money down.
“Farmers kind of sit back and we want to make sure things are going to work because everything’s expensive, you know?” he said. “We don’t mind trying new things. If we think it’s going to work we’re pretty excited about it because innovation has been a good thing in agriculture.”
About 45 miles away, Kent Urwiller is also considering the F-150 Lightning.
“I’m not a Ford guy,” he said, standing in his garage where he has a pristine 1984 Chevrolet Silverado parked next to a Tesla and a “Chevy Race Fans Only” sign on the wall. “But I would not be opposed to getting one of those for our company.”
Urwiller runs an internet service company out of rural central Nebraska, and he wants to buy electric pickups for his employees. They drive about 150 miles a day, well under the range Ford’s advertising for the pickup. And it could save the company some serious cash – right now he fills a 300 gallon tank with gas almost every week for the fleet.
The F-150 Lightning would serve Urwiller’s needs perfectly, Carla Bailo said. She’s the chief executive officer of the Center for Automotive Research, a non-profit that studies issues facing the auto industry.
“If you have a fleet of trucks that work within a certain amount of range and you have a place to charge those trucks, it’ll fit fine,” she said. “If you’re using it on your farm to take it out in the field then plug in overnight, perfect.”
But charging infrastructure has blind spots in the Midwest. Bailo said that won’t be a problem for the 95% of drivers who charge at home, but it could hold back people who need their trucks on the road – like people working the rodeo circuit with their horse trailers, for example.
“If you’re doing long-haul stuff with a trailer behind you that’s where you’re going to be a little concerned,” she said.
For now, old-school F-150 drivers don’t seem to be signing up en masse to go electric. The company reported that about 75% of the people who signed up for the Lightning are new to Ford.
But attitudes might change once the F-150 Lightning gets onto roads, Don Cox said. He’s taught classes on electric cars at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has seen EVs multiply since he got the 60th Tesla Roadster delivered to customers in 2008.
It’s like a snowball – people have gotten comfortable with EVs after seeing more on the road and watching as neighbors tried them out, Cox said. He predicts the cycle will repeat with electric trucks.
“It’ll make a difference when Joe down the road has been driving the F-150 Lightning for a year or two and hasn’t had any problems,” he said. “That’s what’s made a difference for the cars now.”
The F-150 Lightning may still have to fight against hostility toward electric cars, which Nancy Meyer has experienced firsthand. She’ll occasionally get a snide comment for the Chevrolet Bolt she drives around rural Nebraska. When she was still driving a Prius someone even placed a snarky note on the windshield.
But she said she hopes the truck can change the perception of EVs in the region.
“They think of them like golf carts, which isn’t true. They’ve got the power, they’ve got the pick up,” Meyer said. “Maybe little boys will start dreaming of owning a Lightning instead of a big gas truck.”
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm