On July 10, a Ford crew showed up at a Canadian National Railway yard in Montreal with 43 F-150 pickup trucks. They loaded 42 trucks into 10 double-decker rail cars. The 43rd, they left outside. This was a special version of the vehicle that has outsold every other model car, truck, and SUV in America, for 42 straight years. They hitched the special truck—which had neither a V6 nor V8 nor diesel nor even four-cylinder EcoBoost engine under the hood—to the front train car. Then Linda Zhang, chief engineer for all things F-150, hit the throttle. And the all-electric Ford F-150 towed a 1.3-million-pound train.
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
Before you start asking: The electric F-150 is just a prototype, with no details on when it will become a production vehicle, beyond sometime in the next few years. Ford is offering no details on various key specs, including horsepower, torque, price, battery size, or the all-important range. But there’s no time like the present for a stunt that proclaims to the world that Ford is indeed hip to the global shift away from the internal combustion engine.
Ford is late to this game, and currently offers just one fully electric vehicle, a model of the Focus that goes a measly 115 miles between charges. But regulators around the world are insisting that automakers move away from gasoline. So last year, CEO Jim Hackett announced the Detroit giant will invest $11 billion in EVs by 2023, with plans to roll out 24 hybrids and 16 pure electrics by 2022. Don’t be surprised if this truck’s among those sweet 16, even if it arrives on dealer lots in limited numbers.
An electric pickup truck makes sense, says Karl Brauer, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. Pickups are Ford’s biggest sellers, in profits as well as volume (it moved nearly 1 million F-Series trucks in 2018), and can better absorb the added cost and weight of a battery than a car like the Focus. EVs produce prodigious torque, which accounts for the whole pulling-a-train thing. Trucks that run set routes (say between construction sites) can better handle limited range. And if Ford wants to show it’s serious about preparing for an electric future—which investors may well want to see, Brauer says—it has to bring batteries to the core of its business.
Ford’s not the only automaker having such thoughts. Elon Musk has been talking about a Tesla pickup since 2013, and may debut a prototype in the coming weeks. GM recently confirmed it will produce an electric pickup at some point, and all-electric startup Rivian is developing a truck for the luxury market.
It’s not a perfect fit, though. The bulk of Ford’s pickups go to the middle of the country, where limited range can be a serious problem, especially for drivers who use trucks as their everyday conveyance (“lifestyle buyers,” in the industry’s parlance). Making things worse, once you’re away from the coasts, the necessary infrastructure is less than robust. Chargepoint, the country’s largest provider of EV plug-in places, lists just 30 charging sites in all of North Dakota. Sure you can plug in at home, but if you plan on spending a few hours on the road, an EV may not make sense.
Still, Ford can’t be seen ignoring the future. Dropping a battery into its marquee product is a nice way to say not just that Ford’s on the EV train—it’s hoping to haul it.