It’s become something of a mantra for me, lately, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It goes like this: Electric cars aren’t coming, they’re already here. And, depending on who you ask, they’ve been here – they just haven’t quite made it into the mainstream, yet. With the dawn of the Rivian R1T (which became the first full-size electric pickup to reach series production earlier this month), though, a lot of people would have you believe that’s set to change. I happen to be one of them.
The light-truck market in the U.S. is unimaginably huge. Consider that 14.5 million new vehicles were sold in the U.S. Of those, 11 (eleven) million were light trucks. As such, calling an electric truck “a big deal” hardly seems fair. In terms of mass-market adoption, it’s the deal. Still, such a development isn’t the only deal, and just as the Dodge Viper was built not to sell Vipers but to sell Neons, there’s a lot more to this nebulous thing we call “influence” than might be apparent at first glance.
As such, I’d like to give you my take on the most influential EVs of today, starting not with the Rivian R1T, but with what is likely to be its biggest, baddest, and boldest market competitor: The Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup.
FORD F-150 LIGHTNING
The Rivian is neat, sure. It seems capable enough, looks good, and is backed by the mighty wallet of Jeff Bezos, himself. All of that is true, but the people behind Rivian only dream of approaching the success of the Ford F-series trucks, and even then, they do so only in their most secret, private thoughts. The Ford F-series is, far and away, the most successful product in America’s automotive history, claiming the top sales spot almost every year since its introduction. According to the Detroit Free Press, the F-series generated some $42 billion (with a b), which was more revenue than the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League made combined in 2019 (the last year of data that could be considered “normal”).
“All by itself,” wrote the Freep’s Phoebe Wall Howard, “the F-series full-size pickup truck franchise within Ford Motor Company is so big that it would make the list of Fortune 100 companies.”
If you’re wondering, the F-series would sit 80th on that list, ahead of industry icons like Nike, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, MasterCard, Netflix, VISA, Uber, and CapitalOne. That’s – it’s a lot, and it is impossible to overstate what the continued success of Ford’s full-size pickup means not only to Ford, but to the UAW workers who assemble it, the suppliers who make parts for it, and the politicians who will do anything to get their votes.
All of which is to say that Ford is not going to get the Lightning wrong. You can see the evidence of that already, in the fact that their first-ever hybrid F-series didn’t treat electrification as a means to greenwash their most crucial product, but as a way to make it better, more capable, and more suited to the needs of the people who are buying it today. Ford is meeting its end-users where they are, in other words, with some PowerBoost buyers driving home a truck they may not even realize is a hybrid.
When you consider that the new F-150 Lightning will very likely be able to go toe-to-toe with the Rivian, spec-wise, while starting at around $30,000 less than the R1T Launch Edition, it’s hard to make a case against the Ford coming out ahead … and whoever wins with electric truck war will, 100 percent, win the race to bring EVs to mainstream America, but it took someone else to get Ford to take the leap into electric in the first place, and that was Elon Musk.
TESLA MODEL S
You can’t have a conversation about electric cars without mentioning Tesla. Not a credible one, anyway, and holy shit did Elon Musk build a credible product in the Model S.
When the Model S made its debut way back in 2012, it seemed easy enough to dismiss. It was expensive, shoddily built, delayed again and again, and pitched by the PayPal guy who seemed to somehow have more hair now than he did in his twenties.
That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. I didn’t think much of Musk or the Model S back then, being more focused on the Nissan GT-R and its VR38TT engine than anything else. We were out at Milan Dragway trying to dial in a particularly stubborn 2014 R35 (the 2014s had a different firmware that, initially, made them difficult to tune properly), and generally having a good time. There was a Model S there, too. The owner had driven it out to the track and was checking out some of the other cars there for a while before he decided to try his car on the track.
I don’t remember the exact time he ran, but I do know that our jaws dropped. We’d seen Teslas drag race other cars on YouTube, sure – but it was a whole other thing to see this silent killer put down a pass with nothing but tire noise in the air. Then he smiled, waved, and drove home.
We sat in the trailer afterward, quiet. After a few minutes, Tym Switzer (Jr.) started asking about electric hub motors and we talked about putting them in the front wheels, but nothing really came of that but napkin sketches. That was the day I became a beliEVer. Electric was the future, and I felt like the cars were only going to get faster from there. For the most part, they have, and companies like Lucid and Kia have followed in the footsteps of the Model S by making drag strip prowess a key component of their EV marketing stories in the years since – but Tesla did it first.
And, if you want someone to think of your car as fast in 2021, you’ll have to line it up against a Tesla, sooner or later.
There are more ways to influence markets than dominating them. And, frankly, sometimes you have to look in the mirror and realize that your purpose in life may be to serve as a warning to others. For the Chevy Bolt, at least, it’s starting to look like that may be the case.
I’ve heard it argued that the Chevy Bolt was more of an example of GM’s sourcing and supply line strength than it was a fully conceived product, and it’s hard to argue against that. I mean, I can’t name a single GM-built hatchback that could be considered a market success in my lifetime, but the Bolt? The car that was seen as a response to the highly publicized Tesla Model 3 and prove to everyone on Wall Street that GM had its head in the game? They decided to make it a hatchback.
Despite the efforts of its massive PR department and the marketing power of some three-thousand nationwide Chevrolet dealers, GM sold fewer than 80,000 Bolts in the US (110,000, globally) between its launch in 2017 and the close of 2020. In contrast, Tesla has sold over one million Model 3 sedans, globally – and that with a higher price tag than the Chevy, and notably without a dedicated PR department, zero dealers, and the fact that sedans aren’t exactly lighting up showroom floors these days, either.
Then the fires happened. Not many, of course (just 13, at last count). Not enough fires, at least, to really worry the people who understood that sitting on top of thirty gallons of flammable liquid isn’t statistically safer than sitting on a semi-explosive battery – but there doesn’t seem to be that many of us, does it?
Worse, if GM’s massive battery recall has been perceived as a black eye to the EV industry as a whole, it’s even worse for Bolt owners. Anecdotally, I’ve been told of charging stations and parking lots posting signs that read “No Chevy Bolts”, and have heard of people being told by dealers that they won’t accept Bolts on trade, or will take the Bolt, but for thousands less than “book value”.
Electric car buyers will likely think twice before buying an EV from GM in the future, and that’s going to hurt Chevy dealers, sure – but it’s going to hurt Cadillac, GMC, and Buick dealers, too, as their EVs start to come to market. You can be sure that Ford, Stellantis, Toyota, Honda, and literally everyone else in the industry is watching closely as GM’s ongoing Bolt disaster unfolds in real-time, and they’re sure to be making moves to ensure that it doesn’t happen to them.
It doesn’t get more influential than that.
HONORABLE MENTION – LIVEWIRE ONE
I know motorcycles don’t generally play well on TTAC, but hear me out – because the entire automotive industry is paying attention to what’s happening at Harley-Davidson and Livewire right now, and if you’re not, then you’re falling behind.
Originally launched in 2019 as a Harley-Davidson, the Livewire was a mid-priced, UJM-style motorcycle that the Motor Company believed could bring in new customers from other brands while giving H-D’s “core buyers” a modern, sporty, and potentially collectible motorcycle (and, yes – for Harley, $30,000 is mid-priced). What happened was not that.
Almost immediately, the majority of H-D’s “core buyers” reacted negatively to the bike. I overheard more than one leather-clad gentleman call it “socialist bullshit” and “gay” and vow to never buy another new Harley from a Livewire dealer – which was bad news for me, because I was a Livewire dealer! Worse, we’d signed on to carry the Motor Company’s upcoming line of e-bikes and scooters, too, and I could only imagine what those guys would say about that.
In the end, Harley-Davidson ended up with a new CEO, who promptly split the company into three parts: Harley-Davison, for “traditional” ICE motorcycles, Serial 1, for e-bicycles and scooters, and Livewire, for high-powered electric motorcycles. By doing so, they effectively began writing Harley-Davidson’s epitaph, because they won’t be able to sell an ICE-powered Harley in ZEV states after 2035, and the number of ZEV states is only growing.
To spell it out completely: If there are no sales, there is no Motor Company.
Why should the four-wheeled universe care? Because this question of how to present electric vehicles is one that car companies are struggling with themselves. That’s why there’s a Polestar 1 and not a Volvo C90 T8 Recharge. That’s why there’s an electric crossover wearing a Mustang nameplate. That’s why there’s an electric GMC Hummer coming, too, and why bringing back the Saturn brand is probably an actual option that’s being discussed right now in some quiet, glass-walled corner of the Ren Cen.
It’s a mistake to assume that every legacy auto brand is going to make it through the transition from petroleum to electric fuels, and it may not matter how good their product is or how established the brand. It may just be that the story they’ve been telling isn’t one that needs to be told in the electrified future, and that is something that every carmaker will have to find out sooner rather than later.[Image: Ford, Tesla, Chevrolet]
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