For the last 39 years, the Ford F-150 truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States. When the company launched the first model in 1975, in the wake of an oil crisis, it didn’t have the environment in mind—the size meant that it could avoid the catalytic converters required by new smog laws at the time. But the newest F-150 will be electric, and because of the pickup’s widespread popularity, it could help speed the transition to zero-emissions transportation.
The truck, called the F-150 Lightning, aims to convert drivers who might not have considered buying an EV. “The key is, it must do things that never were possible before with gas,” says Darren Palmer, Ford’s general manager of electric vehicles and global director of electrification. “Otherwise, it doesn’t tempt people to move into electric. Once they sample it, they are gone. They never come back. They love it. But you’ve got to tempt them in first, because it’s always the case that something new takes time for people.”
The electric model is more powerful, and faster, than any of the previous gas versions, going from zero to 60 in a little more than four seconds, and with a range of 300 miles on a full charge with its extended-range battery. “Electric drives have nearly all of their torque available even when they’re not moving,” Palmer says. It’s faster than the Raptor, a model that costs tens of thousands more. The truck can tow “like a freight train,” he says, with the larger models able to tow 10,000 pounds up steep hills. It’s more aerodynamic than the similarly sized gas version, though it weighs more because of the huge battery at the base of the frame—the Lightning is around 6,500 pounds, versus a 5,550-pound 3.5-liter PowerBoost Crew Cab 4×4 that’s similarly equipped.
Inside, the battery can be used to charge equipment, such as concrete mixers, on a work site. If someone’s at home and the power goes out, the truck can send power into the house for days, and then charge itself back up when the grid comes back on. (Ford partnered with SunRun, the solar company, which will separately sell the inverters needed to connect the battery to a house.) A new front trunk, or “frunk,” offers storage that older trucks didn’t have because there’s no longer an internal combustion engine taking up space. Another feature automatically backs the truck up to connect it to a trailer; the truck can also steer itself on some roads. Like other EVs, the trucks are also cheaper to operate, since electricity is cheaper than gas, and they need fewer repairs because there are fewer total parts.
The designers had to overcome some challenges because the truck was electric; in tests of an early prototype, for example, when the truck stopped on a hill, some components could overheat. “We discovered that, and we had to reengineer them to be able to cool better,” he says. Since customers also worried about where they could charge the truck on longer trips, the company designed a system that checks the weight of the trailer and the gradient, wind, and traffic conditions on a specific route, and then gives the driver an exact range. “When you have a truck, and especially when you put a load in that truck, and it says you’ve got 200 miles and the charge station’s 190 miles away, you cannot afford to drive off and all of a sudden it goes, ‘Oh, actually, sorry, no, it’s 160 miles [of range left].'” The company also trained thousands of dealers to repair the new vehicles, including replacing the battery if needed.
The company’s customers might not necessarily choose the new truck for environmental reasons. Pickup drivers, including F-150 drivers, lean Republican; historically, most EV buyers have been liberal, though in one recent poll, more than 40% of Republican respondents said they’d consider getting an electric vehicle. Buyers may simply want the truck because it’s a better truck. And Ford is convinced that its customers will want it. “We develop this in conjunction with our customers,” says Palmer. “They’ve seen it, they’ve tried it, they’ve driven it. They’ve given us advice on it. And we’re very close to them, both fleet and commercial.”
Ford will still offer a gas version of the truck for now. And though the company has committed to going all-electric in Europe, it hasn’t yet made the same commitment in the U.S. (It does plan to be carbon neutral by 2050.) It’s moving slower toward full electrification than many competitors, such as Volkswagen, which plans to be 100% electric by 2026. But it’s offering electric versions of its most popular vehicles first, by design, and that could make a difference in the overall adoption of EVs. “Is it a pivotal moment in the electrification in the world? I think it might be,” Palmer says. “Because it’s the best-selling product, and that begs attention.”