The Success of the Electric F-150 Depends on Something Other Than the F-150

Trucks used to tow or haul lots of cargo need a better charging network.
F-150 Lightning towing a big  camper
Credit: Ford
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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On Wednesday, Ford debuted the F-150 Lightning, the first electric F-150. The F-150, a big truck, is the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. year after year, so Ford announcing an electric version is a huge deal, not just for the auto industry but for anyone interested in the future of this planet. It is probably the most important consumer product launch since at least the iPhone.

Some quick numbers to put the F-150's importance into perspective. Ford sells approximately 900,000 of these suckers every year. As Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic pointed out, the entire U.S. auto industry sold about 250,000 electric vehicles total last year. The F-150 gets about 25 miles per gallon, and the average American drives about 13,500 miles per year. That means every year Ford sells enough F-150s to consume approximately 486 million more gallons of gasoline per year, not counting the millions of F-150s already on the road. Electrifying these vehicles as soon as possible is just about one of the most important things we can do to reduce emissions. 

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And the F-150 Lightning is no lightweight. It is, to be sure, an impressive machine, a giant 1,900 pound battery on wheels, that can also power a house or a worksite. The long range version boasts up to 300 miles of range (although that is Ford's estimate, not the Environmental Protection Agency's) with the standard range version promising 230 miles. 

And there lies the biggest challenge facing the electric F-150. It is, ostensibly, a work truck, meant to haul heavy things and tow big loads (how many F-150 owners use the truck for such things is another matter entirely; but for the purposes of this article, the fact that they buy the truck thinking they will is all that matters). There is just one problem. Hauling heavy things and towing big loads means the battery has to expend much more energy to move the truck, significantly reducing its range. And, currently, the U.S. has nowhere near the fast charging network needed to make up for it. 

To see how dramatic towing and hauling impacts range, just look at some Tesla forums or do a couple of Youtube searches. This video, for example, shows a Tesla Model X towing 4,500 pounds—the F-150 Lightning boasts a towing capability of 10,000 pounds—which drained the battery approximately three times faster. These numbers will vary significantly depending on how much one is towing, how fast they're going, and how aerodynamic whatever they're towing is. For example, a Model Y towing a folded camper, which is lighter and more aerodynamic, got about 30 percent reduced range.

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Of course, this concept applies to cars that use gasoline as well. A regular gas-powered Ford F-150 will also get worse mileage towing a trailer. But it doesn't matter because there are plenty of gas stations to stop at for ten minutes and fill up. Not so with the electric F-150, in which case there are not plenty of fast charging stations and filling up will not take ten minutes. 

I'm most worried about this because Ford isn't being upfront about the drawbacks. In its official press release, Ford boasts about its towing and payload capacities and quotes Kumar Galhotra, a Ford executive, as saying “F-150 Lightning delivers everything we’ve said electric vehicles can offer, plus the capability expected from a Built Ford Tough truck – not just near instant torque but powerful towing and hauling customers can depend on.” But nowhere does it disclose that range will significantly diminish the more it hauls, or even what kind of range customers might expect in those cases.

Ford spokesperson Said Deep did not share any specifications regarding the vehicle’s range when towing or hauling, but said the F-150 Lightning will “come equipped with ‘Intelligent Range’, which more accurately predicts range with factors including payload, towing information and weather so the customer knows how many miles they have left.”

Ford is following precedent here. It doesn't disclose those figures with gas-powered trucks because no one cares, but people will care with the electric version. It's pretty important information for anyone considering buying an electric work truck. 

Still, this is not to say this is a problem of Ford's creation. It is a basic physics problem. And a bigger battery with more range is not an obvious solution to the problem. The F-150's battery is already 1,900 pounds, almost as heavy as a small car itself. The heavier the battery gets, the smaller are the returns on how much each additional cell adds to range, and of course, the more expensive the vehicle gets. For example, the most expensive electric Hummer weighs a whopping 9,000 pounds with a 2,000-pound battery and has 350 miles of range, just 50 miles more than the electric F-150 (again, not yet EPA-rated). 

We need the F-150 Lightning to sell extremely well, all other electric cars and trucks to sell equally well, and all future versions of the same vehicles to sell even better. That won't happen unless we're wide awake to the shortcomings this still nascent technology has and focus on addressing those problems. Until the U.S. charging infrastructure improves to the point where EV owners can be confident of topping up quickly and conveniently for times they have big loads to haul, an EV truck for those who actually need the power will be a tough sell.