Ford is working on hybrid and electric versions of its iconic and best-selling F-150 pickup that the second-largest U.S. automaker says won't skimp on power.
The timing is still up in the air, but Ford executives said their engineers have been working on a more efficient F-150 that will come with more towing and off-road power than traditional gasoline and diesel trucks can offer today.
The market for heavy-duty electric trucks is starting to swing more in Ford's favor as the entire industry and consumer demand shifts to more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ford shared the first details of a hybrid version of its new 2020 Explorer SUV during the Detroit auto show this week. Executives also teased some details about the company's electric vehicle plans over the next few years, including a fully electric version of Ford's popular full-size F-150 pickup, and a planned high-performance electric crossover with design cues taken from the Mustang.
"We have learned a lot, and our bet going forward is different," Ford Executive Vice President Jim Farley said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "We think customers want to pay not just for the fuel efficiency and the carbon footprint of hybrid, they want performance."
For example, a hybrid powertrain could give the F-150 pickup a lot of low-end torque, which is helpful for climbing hills and towing loads. Ford also plans to put power outlets on the truck, effectively turning it into a generator for customers using it for work, such as contractors and construction workers.
"With the F-150 electric, you don't have to have an expensive generator on site now," he said. "You can just plug your tools into your truck and that electric powertrain will run all the tools on the job site. Customers will pay for that because now they don't have to buy a expensive $10,000 generator."
Ford is also trying this approach with the new Explorer. It looks pretty similar on the outside to the outgoing model, but Ford made some big changes to the vehicle's guts, and those changes will carry over to the hybrid version. Ford said that makes the Explorer the only non-premium hybrid SUV to be able to go off-road.
How well it will actually perform remains to be seen. Many car buyers in the market for utility vehicles are often skeptical of hybrids for a variety of reasons. The batteries in hybrids often add considerable weight and take up a lot of space in a vehicle, which customers would prefer to have for storage or seating.
But Ford has added a specially designed liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery into the Explorer chassis below the second row of seats to save space.
The new Explorer also comes with an improved terrain management system taken from the F-150 and a range of 500 miles per tank of gas.
"It gets great gas mileage and great range," he said. "But it tows 5,000 pounds, it goes off road, unlike our competitors. We want a hybrid, whether is it is in a pickup like F-150, or Explorer, to be built ford tough. We want to bring that capability."
Ford's first electric vehicle will be a crossover. Its design, however, will be inspired by the Mustang, and it will be marketed as a high-performance driver's car, Farley said.
"Our first electric will not be a super-rational small car," Farley said. "It will be a larger utility and will have a new silhouette, but will be about being fun to drive."
However, there is a bit of doubt as to whether customers want to pay more, even for a nice vehicle, said Autotrader executive analyst Michelle Krebs. Automakers have so far been able to get away with charging higher prices for SUVs and crossovers precisely because customers are willing to pay more for a more flexible, capable vehicles. But there may be a ceiling on how much buyers are willing to spend.
"The No. 1 complaint in our data is that vehicles are too expensive," Krebs said.
That said, offering more hybrids and electrics in body styles already customers are buying is a start to higher sales.
"One of the problems with electric vehicles introduced so far (except for the pricey Model X) is that they have been cars, not sport utilities and trucks, which are far more popular than are traditional cars," she said.
Offering other benefits, whether it is on-board capability or perks, such as access to carpool lanes, can also draw buyers, though they still make up a small portion of the total market.
"EVs still have a long way to go before they car commonplace," she said.
But Ford has picked up some lessons from its past that it said will help clear the hurdle of potentially higher sticker prices that come with investments in new electrified drive trains, Ford's Farley said.
Building the iconic truck with more aluminum was initially a play to lighten the vehicle and make it more fuel efficient. But it's pricey.
It didn't matter. People bought the truck anyway.
"We learned when we did aluminum F-150 that people are willing to pay more for a truck if you give it more capability," Farley told CNBC at the Detroit auto show this week.
"When we made the vehicle lighter, we also had more towing, more payload," he said. "And pickup customers are willing to pay for that. So even though the material was more expensive, they actually paid more money for it. Today we have the highest price of any full-size truck because of that."
That means higher profits, which will need if it plans to stay competitive in a market where technology is changing so rapidly.
"And we are now applying that lesson of offering capability across our lineup," he said.