SAN ANTONIO — Ford Motor's new F-150 Lightning is an electric pickup truck. That may seem obvious given it looks like a truck and has electric motors and a battery pack instead of an engine, but it needs to be said.
Why? Because a successful battery-powered pickup is a critical step in the EV transition, for Ford and the industry at large.
While industry leader Tesla has proven consumers will purchase electric cars and Rivian Automotive has shown there's demand for electric lifestyle vehicles, the F-150 is the most significant test thus far as to whether EVs can move from compliance vehicles and niche trucks to a product that will entice more mainstream buyers.
The electric pickup market, though still largely unproven, is going to be important for investors to watch in the coming years. Trucks traditionally have fat profit margins and account for about 20% of vehicles sold in the U.S., according to auto intelligence firm Edmunds.
LMC Automotive expects the U.S. electric pickup market to increase from about 25,000 vehicles this year to 1 million or so by 2030. There are anticipated to be five electric pickup models available on the market this year, and that's expected to jump to 21 over the next decade.
Ford's F-150 Lightning is the first traditional pickup truck to go electric. It's not a GMC Hummer EV "supertruck." It's not a Tesla "Cybertruck." It's not a Rivian R1T "adventure vehicle." It's a pickup truck, electrified.
The benefits of the F-150 Lightning are similar to the Hummer EV and Rivian R1T, but these electric pickups — the only ones being sold currently in the U.S. — are not created equal. The three drive differently, and will appeal to different buyers once sales move past early adopters into more general, EV-curious buyers.
The Lightning lives up to the F-150 name in both function and form, acting as a bridge between the traditional pickup people know and a new EV. It shares many of its design and parts with its traditional sibling, aside from the powertrains, some design tweaks and an optional 15.5-inch control screen.
It's also priced like a traditional pickup, ranging from about $40,000 to more than $90,000. That's similar to Ford's current lineup of large four-door pickups and in line with average prices of about $61,000 for a full-size pickup, according to Cox Automotive.
An electric pickup for the masses is something Ford was in a unique position to bring to market. Its F-Series lineup, including the F-150, has been the best-selling vehicle in America for 40 years and the top truck for 45 years.
The company set out to make an electric version of the F-150 pickup truck, and it succeeded. The vehicle operates as a full-size truck. But the electrification brings added benefits of essentially instantaneous torque, increased storage through a massive front trunk, or "frunk," where an engine would traditionally be — and it removes the burden of having to fill up on gas.
The Lightning drives like an F-150 should, and that's not a bad thing. Ford and other automakers have increasingly transformed pickups from harsh-riding work trucks to comfortable vehicles capable of navigating smoothly on and off road.
The vehicle's large battery provides for an even better ride, as it keeps the vehicle more grounded and provides a closer 50-50 weight ratio for better balance. On top of that, it provides an even towing experience because EVs don't require transmission gear changes, which are especially noticeable when towing cargo.
While the Lightning is capable of scaling hills or even a little rough terrain, it doesn't match up to the Hummer or R1T in that regard — but that's by design. This is a truck meant for mainstream buyers, not a niche segment. Ford at some point may offer such a hardier vehicle, but this isn't it.
The F-150 Lightning is capable of up to 580 horsepower and 775 foot-pounds of torque. Consumer models with its top-end 131-kWh battery start at about $72,500 and have a range of up to 320 miles on a single charge. Its towing capacity is up to 10,000 pounds —between that of the Hummer and R1T. Vehicles with smaller batteries and a range of 230 miles are less expensive but also offer less performance.
One of the Lightning's most unique advantages over the Hummer and R1T is its capabilities for on-board power generation. Ford loaded the vehicle with outlets and a bi-directional charging system that can power a work site or a home in the event of a blackout for up to 10 days, depending on energy usage.
Ford started shipping the F-150 Lightning earlier this month for select fleet buyers and more than 200,000 reservation holders. The company has not announced when it will reopen its order bank, as it plans to ramp up production to 150,000 vehicles by mid-2023.
The Rivian R1T has a bit of first-mover advantage in the electric pickup market; production began last fall but is ramping up slowly. The R1T is capable in both performance and off-roading, going 0-60 mph in about three seconds like a sports car, but it can scale rocks or large hills like a Jeep SUV.
Its interior and exterior styling, with vegan leather and real wood, are more Tesla-like chic than off-road brute. It's also a much smaller vehicle — about 16 inches shorter, in fact — than the F-150 Lightning, making it more comparable to a Ford Ranger or Jeep Gladiator.
That speaks to how Rivian is positioning its products as "adventure vehicles." It's how Jeep has described its SUVs for years, making Rivian more of a threat to the Stellantis SUV brand than the F-150.
For now, Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe agrees, telling CNBC during a recent interview that the three pickups are each "pretty different products." Cross-shopping between the Rivian R1T, the Hummer and the F-150, he said, are extremely low: "Clearly the objective and goals are different."
Edmunds reports shoppers looking at the R1T most often comparison shop the Ford Mustang Mach-E crossover and other EVs, rather than other pickups.
However, Scaringe has alluded to plans for a full lineup of vehicles at Rivian, which theoretically could include a larger truck.
Starting pricing for the R1T ranges from $67,500 to $85,000. Vehicles currently available have up to 314 miles of range on a single charge with a 128.9-kWh "large" battery. Performance versions with four motors combine to produce 835 horsepower and 908 foot-pounds of torque. The vehicle can tow up to 11,000 pounds — an important metric for many pickup owners.
There's a reason GM resurrected Hummer, a brand infamously popular in the 1990s and 2000s for its excessive, gas-guzzling vehicles. Whether you loved Hummers or hated them, you knew them. That means GM had brand awareness baked in as long as the new EV stayed true to form for the brand, and it does.
The Hummer EV pickup looks like a modernized version of its descendants. It's large, flamboyant and extremely capable.
Instead of guzzling gas, it drains lots of energy. The electric Hummer is reportedly the least efficient electric truck of the three at 47 MPGe, an electric vehicle range equivalent for miles per gallon. That compares to 70 MPGe for both the R1T and F-150 Lightning. But again, it's Hummer, so what did you expect?
The Hummer's off-road capability also stands out compared with the other two pickups, which helps explain its lower efficiency and more than 9,000-pound weight.
This Hummer can scale rock climbs with ease, while also proving a smooth on-road experience and exceptional hands-free highway driving with GM's Super Cruise system. It also features removal roof panels that can fit into the vehicle's frunk and many other special and hidden features, including a "crab walk" mode and faster charging than the other trucks.
GM threw everything it had and more into the Hummer in terms of off-road and performance parts. Its $110,000 starting price is a testament to that, ahead of lower-priced variants expected in the years ahead that could start at $79,995.
The current top-end Hummer, despite its weight, can achieve 0-60 mph in about three seconds with its "Watts to Freedom," or "WTF" mode. It's capable of up to 1,000 horsepower and 1,200 foot-pounds of motor torque. Its range on a single charge is up to 329 miles with a 212.7-kWh battery pack (of which 205 is usable, GM says). It can tow up to 7,500 pounds, the lowest lift of the three electric pickups.
Unlike with the Rivian pickup, Edmunds reports some notable cross-shopping between the electric Hummer and its less rugged competitors. Buyers interested in the Hummer look at the R1T and the Lightning for comparison more than any other models.
That crossover, though, still only represents about 9% of those truck seekers.