Inside Clean Energy: In the Year of the Electric Truck, Some Real Talk from Texas Auto Dealers

The Ford F-150 Lightning is part of a wave of electric trucks coming in 2022.

A Ford employee works on the line where the F-150 Lightning is being assembled at the River Rouge manufacturing complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Ford

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The transition to electric vehicles will enter a new phase this spring with the debut of the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck, the first all-electric edition of the country’s top-selling vehicle.

In McKinney, Texas, a far-flung suburb of Dallas, the enthusiasm for the new model is running high, said Bob Tomes, owner of Bob Tomes Ford. His customers have made deposits on nearly 500 of the EVs, which is a lot.

“People are extremely, extremely excited about it,” Tomes said.

But he also is disappointed that parts shortages and other issues mean that Ford is unable to build the trucks fast enough to meet demand, so only a few of his customers will get one right away.

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I reached out to Tomes and other Texas Ford dealers this week to try to answer one of the biggest questions facing the F-150 Lightning: Will a significant share of existing truck buyers want to move away from the internal combustion engines they’re accustomed to and buy this electric pickup?

Texas, epicenter of the nation’s oil and gas industry and its top oil and gas producer, is a good place to ask because the state also leads the country in sales of Ford’s F-Series pickups. From January to October last year, Texans registered 85,654 new F-Series pickups, which was more than double the next state, California, which had 35,555, according to IHS Markit.

The F-Series is the top-selling line of pickups in the country and the F-150 has long been the most popular model, outselling all other cars, trucks and SUVs.

Dealers told me that the F-150 Lightning looks like it will be a hit in urban and suburban Texas, but rural Texas will be slow to embrace an all-electric truck.

McKinney is the kind of place where the truck has strong appeal, allowing customers to make their daily commutes, which are often 50 to 60 miles roundtrip, and do nearly all of their charging at home. Drivers no longer need to buy gasoline and they have few fears about battery life, since the model has a range of about 230 miles.

But it’s a different story in Winnsboro in northeastern Texas, a city with about 3,500 residents.

“There aren’t a bunch of people standing in line for an electric vehicle with a range of 230 miles,” said Larry Brown, general manager of Texas Country Ford in Winnsboro.

A common drive, like a roundtrip to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, would use up all the battery range.

If his local customers buy an electric vehicle, it is likely to be a gas-electric hybrid, he said. His personal vehicle is a hybrid F-150, and he has been pleased with its power and range.

I specified “local” customers because the all-electric vehicles that Brown sells are usually to customers who are driving long distances from urban areas because their local dealerships have sold out. A good example is the Mustang Mach-E, an EV introduced in 2020, that had sales of 27,140 vehicles in 2021, which was about half of the sales of the gasoline-powered Mustang.

Ford has been feeding a hype machine for the F-150 Lightning, with spending on some of the most expensive advertising time, like on NFL games, to make the case the new vehicle has features that may make it better than a gasoline model. One ad shows a family using their Lightning to provide backup power to their house.

This week, Ford said it was nearly doubling production of the Lightning, going from 80,000 vehicles per year to 150,000 vehicles per year by 2023 at the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford said this is part of a plan to increase manufacturing capacity for electric vehicles over the next two years to reach a global target of 600,000 per year.

For some perspective, the company sold 726,004 of the F-Series in the United States in 2021.

The company also said it has nearly 200,000 reservations for the Lightning, which is a large number. To make a reservation, a customer puts down a $100 refundable deposit, which puts them in line to buy the model when it becomes available. I want to use caution when talking about reservation numbers, though, since it’s not much of a commitment to put down a refundable deposit.

That said, Ford’s announcement that it’s increasing production of the Lightning is a sign that the company expects this to be a huge seller. Also, the success of the Mach-E gives Ford some credibility that its big talk on EVs will be followed by big results.

Ford is making a push into an EV market led by Tesla. Meanwhile, Tesla has been working to introduce the Cybertruck, the brand’s first pickup. Tesla had initially said Cybertruck would go on sale in 2021, but CEO Elon Musk said in October that the model’s debut was being pushed back to late 2022 because of shortages of some parts.

The Cybertruck has a polarizing design that doesn’t seem to be aiming for typical pickup truck buyers. Even so, Tesla touted more than 500,000 pre-orders for the model in early 2020. That’s a lot, but we’ll see how many of those translate into sales.

Another one of the new trucks is the R1T, the debut model from Rivian, a California-based company that wants to be for electric trucks what Tesla has been to electric cars. The R1T was produced in limited quantities last year, and got rave reviews from the automotive press. Customers who ordered the truck should start getting them as soon as March.

The arrival of the F-150 Lightning, the Cybertruck, the R1T and several other new electric trucks in 2022 will represent an expansion of the EV market, continuing a shift from a time when most EVs were compact or subcompact cars.

Chevrolet is not far behind, with plans to release an all-electric version of its Silverado pickup in spring of 2023. The company gave a first look at the model on Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and provided new details, like pricing that starts at $39,900. The manufacturer didn’t list the battery range for the model at that price, but did say that the model would have a maximum range of 400 miles available at a higher price that was not disclosed.

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But it may be a while until all-electric vehicles become desirable in rural areas. I asked Brown of Texas Country Ford what battery range he thinks his customers would demand before they were comfortable with an EV.

“It would need 400 to 500 miles,” he said. “I’m in Texas and that’s a whole other kind of world. You leave town and it’s a while. You’ve got a long way to drive.”

Automakers continue to increase their battery ranges, thanks to improvements in design and materials, so it may not be long until an affordable vehicle comes with a long-haul range.

One of the larger points from talking with dealers is that customers are basing their decisions on a vehicle’s price and whether it can meet their needs, not on considerations about the environment or wanting to support oil industry jobs.

“I think our society is doing a great job with the electric vehicles, but we’ve got a little work to do to make them highly popular out in the country,” Brown said. “In the city, those people are loving it. You get in your car and drive 10 miles to work and you never have to buy gas. It’s a great thing.”

He is touching on one of the unifying features of American drivers: Nobody, at least nobody I’ve ever met, gets pleasure from buying gasoline.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Georgia Solar Factory Shows the Promise (and Dangers) of Biden’s Industrial Policy: Hanwha Q Cells of South Korea opened a giant solar panel plant in Georgia in 2019, responding to Trump Administration tariffs that penalized panels made in China. Now the Biden Administration wants to use government incentives and other policies to dramatically increase panel manufacturing in the United States, encouraging other plants like the one in Georgia. Biden’s approach is a government intervention in the market that has political and economic risks, including the risks of rising consumer prices, as Gavin Bade reports for Politico.

A Closer Look at the Large Roofing Company Selling Solar Shingles: GAF, one of the largest roofing companies in the United States, has begun selling solar shingles. The company set up a subsidiary, GAF Energy, to sell the product, which are shingles that serve the function of solar panels. With a nationwide reach, GAF is well-positioned to issue a major challenge to Tesla, the company that has been slowly developing its own solar shingle business, as Tik Root reports for The Washington Post.

This 1970s Farmers’ Uprising Has Lessons for the Energy Transition: To make a transition to renewable energy, the country needs to build many more interstate power lines. But proposals to build the lines often get bogged down in objections from people who don’t want to look at them. I wrote this week about a 1970s uprising in Minnesota against a proposed power line that shows some of what motivates opponents. Power companies and state officials learned from what went wrong in the Minnesota case and eventually found ways to propose projects without inviting such fierce opposition. Clean energy advocates say the country can learn from what went wrong, and then went right, in Minnesota.

Tesla Weathered Parts Shortages Better Than Others. Here’s How: Global shortages of computer chips and other parts led to delays and lost sales across the auto industry in 2021. But Tesla was able to deal with the shortages better than its peers. The company had the ability to make parts in-house and also sold some vehicles while disclosing to customers that certain parts, like Bluetooth chips and USB port, were missing and would be added later, as Hyunjoo Jin reports for Reuters.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.