If you talk to anyone involved in building or designing Ford pickup trucks, it won’t take long before the words “Built Ford Tough” come tumbling out.
To be fair, it’s a great slogan: Just three syllables with a built-in narrative. First used in the late-1970s, it’s the rare tagline that has withstood the test of time. That’s appropriate because the Ford F-Series of pickups have been the best-selling vehicle lineup in America for more than 40 years. Any change would have considerable ramifications on the entire automotive industry.
In 2015, Ford made headlines as the first truck to transition to an all-aluminum for the body panels. Today, Ford announced an even bigger change: It would be the first of the big-three truckmakers of General Motors, RAM, and Ford to reveal its all-electric pickup: The F-150 Lightning.
Because this is the best-selling vehicle in America, it means Lightning will introduce electric cars to millions of potential new owners, many of whom have never considered buying an EV before. This is the Model T of the new millennium: a sea change moment for the entire industry and that makes it the most important car since the invention of the production line — or maybe ever.
The F-150 Lightning is the next step in Ford’s transition to electrified cars. Last year, it released the Mustang Mach-E to critical acclaim. It even received the prestigious North American Utility Vehicle of the Year award. For 2021, the 117-year-old company is aiming higher, starting with the eTransit, an electric version of its business-focused and ultra-popular panel van, which launched earlier this year. But ultimately, the F-150 Lightning is the real prize — and perhaps the biggest stage yet for electric automobiles.
And Lightning isn’t just a buzzy name based on a pun about electricity (though it is that). It’s a resurrection of a nameplate that Ford applied to a few performance-focused trucks in the ’90s, including one that scored a Guinness record for the fastest production pickup truck in the world.
Darren Palmer is a 31-year Ford vet who worked his way up the company across several continents to become Ford’s general manager for battery electric vehicles. His British accent is initially surprising coming from a Michigan-based company, but it’s immediately apparent that he has a passion for electric cars. He’s also responsible for three of the biggest vehicle launches in Ford history, so he’s had a busy few years.
“Our strategy is to electrify our icons,” Palmer explains proudly in an interview with Inverse. “And we will not launch any electric vehicles that are not doing things you could never do with” a traditional engine. He’s dead serious about this next point, too: “If they’re not moving the game forward, we’re not doing it.”
And the F-150 Lightning, Palmer says, does indeed do many things that regular F-Series trucks couldn’t. “It will tempt people across to electric.”
But first, it needs to prove itself as a truck. Ford has earned its stripes, which should go a long way toward assuaging concerns about the Lightning not being A Real Truck. Ford claims to have tested the Lightning for the equivalent of 7.4 million customer miles, including on one particularly horrific pothole-filled course that uses robots instead of humans because it’s such a torture test.
“It has the exact same performance as all of our trucks.”
“It’s been tested at our Michigan proving grounds like every one of our trucks,” Palmer says. “It has the exact same performance as all of our trucks. That’s a given.”
The Lightning has a full-size cab that seats five and a 5.5-foot bed and can haul 2,000 pounds of payload, or the combined weight of everything loaded into truck and bed, including humans. That’s on par with the currently available internal-combustion engine (ICE) models equipped with Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6, the smaller F-150 engine option. And it can tow up to 10,000 pounds, which, again, is the same amount as a similarly equipped ICE F-150.
How the F-150 Lightning addresses range anxiety
The F-150 Lightning comes with a pair of battery options, a standard range version that Ford targets to 230 miles, and a long-range pack that should deliver around 300 miles. DC fast-charging is standard, and it can charge at up to 150 kilowatts, depending on which battery pack is equipped. It should be able to charge from 15 to 80 percent in around 41 minutes or gain about 54 miles of range in ten minutes if the pack is drained enough, according to the automaker.
At home, a 19-kilowatt onboard charging system allows the truck to add as much as 30 miles of range per hour, significantly faster than most other EVs can at home — so long as the Lightning buyer purchases a Ford charging station and wires it to a 60-amp breaker.
As anyone who has driven (or even ridden in) an electric car knows, glancing at your available range is something you do almost as often as glancing at the speedometer. You’re constantly aware of the ticking distance bomb that is your current distance-to-empty.
Ford wants to get rid of range anxiety. A lot of companies have tried to do this in the past with varying degrees of success, but anecdotal tales from other car journalists and the folks who prep and deliver cars for review say that Ford might have actually cracked it.
“The first time I drove with my kids in an EV they kept asking ‘how much range do we have?” said Palmer. “Eighty miles. Then 79 miles. Then my eight-year-old says ‘Dad, are we going to get home?’”
“Yes, we have 78 miles of range and it’s three miles to home, we’ll be alright,” he said. “But the stress in the car, the paranoia about range, I understood the fear.”
Former Ford CEO Jim Hackett was a proponent of human-centered design, and while the company was developing the Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning vehicles, they kept coming back to range. It was something the team heard about in every focus group and customer panel.
“Our engineers thought about it and say ‘there’s too many factors’” to calculate range correctly, says Palmer. But you can break it down, and it becomes an engineering problem. And it turns out the biggest factor is the humans in the car.
It’s relatively easy to take into account altitude changes along a planned route, the weather, or traffic flow — but the human element is more complicated:
- Do you drive at 65 or 85 on the highway?
- Do you drive very aggressively, accelerating and braking a lot, or do you cruise more smoothly?
- Do you turn the heater or air conditioning to high, or do you preheat or cool the car before you leave, while it’s still plugged in?
All these factors, and countless more, play into what your actual range is and a computer can’t anticipate that without knowing how you drive. Ford is trying to account for it by giving each driver an in-car profile that tracks how your favorite radio stations, seat position, and, crucially, your driving habits.
“We measure the energy you actually use and adjust your range estimate personally to you.”
“We measure the energy you actually use and adjust your range estimate personally to you,” said Palmer. “There’s a spread of range because of the way people behave and in some cars the range estimate is off by 50 percent.
“What’s the point of a 300-mile car if you’re putting in a mental buffer of 100 miles every day?”
Over time, the range estimates will get better both as your car learns how you drive, and as more Ford EV drivers hit the road. All the cars are cloud-connected and anonymized data is sent up to the cloud to help Ford figure out what real-world range is like road-by-road. Owners can opt out of the data collection if you wish, but if your range is less accurate because of it — that’s on you.
If you plot a route, it’ll take into account all these different factors including wind direction, the weather, traffic, and update. The car will tell the user that the cloud-informed range estimate is being adjusted and show the old and new numbers. Then once the journey is underway, Ford breaks it up into slices and compares each slice to reality to see if the predicted energy use is accurate or if it needs to be updated.
“I want to be able to tell you that you’re going too fast when we adjust the range downwards,” Palmer says. “Then we can coach people. We don’t want to bug them unless it makes a difference.”
Trucks and first-time electric buyers
With a truck, the range estimate is even more important because it’s likely to attract a lot of potential first-time EV buyers who will come into the dealership skeptical and anxious about range.
“A brand new [EV owner] will get in and be crazy delighted with how it feels to drive and completely clueless about what happens with range,” Palmer said. “I talk to them and they don’t understand. They say ‘my range went up’ or ‘my range went down’ and they don’t understand.”
“I say ‘well, you weren’t driving like an average person, you were driving like a—’”
But once that new EV owner is educated about what makes a difference to range, they get excited and maximizing range turns into a game: Palmer tells me a story about a scientist that was on in a focus group who was thrilled to learn about all the different parts that go into range and to learn how to get the most out of his new EV. And for him, they could show all those parts going into it — but most customers just want it to work.
“Our goal on the truck is to make it accurate,” Palmer says. “I’ll give you tips, but I won’t lie to you.” In other words, if you aren’t getting the range you want, you might have to not drive like a jerk.
The F-150 Lightning and towing: How it works
One thing a truck has to do is tow. Theoretically, the F-150 Lightning should be very good at this. Electric vehicles have lots of torque, which means they’re good at moving heavy things.
But it’s actually not the weight of the trailer that’s the issue. Sure, getting a heavy trailer up to speed takes some energy, but keeping it at 65 MPH isn’t very taxing. Instead, it’s all that wind that’s the issue.
Many trailers are shaped like a flying brick, so to take that into account, your F-150 Lightning will ask a bunch of questions when a new trailer is connected. And it’ll keep track of your trailers, just like it keeps track of drivers, to improve its range estimates over time.
It’ll ask the height, width, and weight of the trailer, as well as whether it uses hydraulic or electric brakes. “Hydraulic brakes give you less regeneration because they brake themselves,” said Palmer. “But you want it to use regenerative braking.” That is, if you’re going down a hill, the trailer is pushing from behind and the battery keeps charging.
“It’s not the weight, but the aero that gets you.”
“It adjusts to the energy usage of each trailer. You could enter a trailer with two horses as one profile and a trailer with one horse as another,” Palmer said. “But to be honest, the weight doesn’t make as much of a difference as you think unless you’re on a permanent uphill. It’s not the weight, but the aero that gets you. Or if you have a really crappy trailer with hydraulic brakes that are braking all the time.”
But because each trailer has its own profile, the system is learning all the time and adjusting for it so that range number will become more and more accurate.
“It’s pretty cool,” Palmer said. “It’s come together really nicely. It might surprise them a little bit.”
Thanks to a pair of electric motors, the F-150 Lightning is expected to make the 0-60 MPH run in the mid-4 second range, which is quite a bit faster than the old Lightning’s 5.2 seconds back in 2003. It makes 563 horsepower and 775 lb-ft of torque and is easily faster than the F-150 Raptor, the quickest Ford pickup available currently.
But performance is just the start. “The front Mega Power Frunk changes everything,” says Palmer. Since the Lightning has the same basic shape as every other F-150, Ford put a massive storage area where the engine would be. It’s large enough to fit a full-sized suitcase plus two carry-ons, or two golf bags, protected from the weather and the sun.
It gives a full-size trunk with a powered opening-and-closing lid to a pickup that already has plenty of storage. It can store 400 pounds of gear, complete with two USB and four 110-volt power plugs to keep all that gear powered up. It’s also water-resistant and has a drain plug, so it can store food and beverages and drain melting ice away or to allow for hosing it out after a hunting or hiking trip.
“This is the best tailgating truck ever made.”
“This is the best tailgating truck ever made,” Palmer says proudly. “It has 9.6 kilowatts of available power on board.” That means you can plug giant TVs, sound systems, and even full-sized refrigerators into it if that’s what your tailgate needs.
The Lightning can do more than just power a blender before a football game. With the proper equipment, it can power your entire home for days, sending electricity from the vehicle’s battery back into the home’s electrical system. Ford says it can run a typical American home for three days at full tilt, or, with some conservation measures (a.k.a., turning off everything except the essentials like your fridge, etc.), it can keep things juiced up for as long as ten days.
That would come in handy in truck-friendly rural areas that can be without power for days after natural disasters, allowing a truck to replace conventional battery backup systems that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Ford is also working on technology to power your house off the truck during the day when electricity is at its most expensive and then charging it back up again during non-peak periods when electricity can be considerably cheaper. That can save the owner money and protect the power grid, something a V8 F-150 could never do.
So Ford says the Lightning can do everything a regular ICE-powered F-150 can, and plenty more besides. Is that enough to convince F-150 buyers to switch? That may not matter.
“We anticipate it will pull from new groups,” Palmer said in a Q&A with journalists ahead of the unveiling of the F-150 Lightning. “Mega Power Frunk means it’s usable for people as more than a truck. That’s hidden storage that’s dry and clean, so it’s like an SUV with a lift gate.”
There will be some current EV owners who have been waiting for a truck, as early adopters who have already made the switch to EVs are unlikely to transition back to ICE. He also noted that there is already a demand for larger EVs, especially on the coasts where EVs are more prevalent.
“And some people just want an electric truck,” Palmer said. “The more tech-forward group of current F-150 owners” will be interested, too.
Ford seems most excited about bringing in a crop of customers
Some 70 percent of Mustang Mach-E buyers are new to Ford and skew much younger and wealthier. Ninety percent of Mach-E vehicles are top-tier spec, meaning greater profits per car, and it’s clear Ford hopes that trend will continue with the Lightning.
Ford says it designs its trucks for the 95th-percentile case or the most brutal treatment its customers can dish out. And the fact that F-150’s are used and abused by fleet customers is a selling point:
“It’s designed for fleets… and then everybody else benefits from that fleet work. It’s primarily about work,” Palmer said. “It’s like a Makita drill. It’s honed on building sites that use it all day long, but then you buy it because you just want the most reliable drill.”
Ford Lightning price and tax credits
And that’s reflected in the starting price of the commercial-focused entry model at $39,974, before a $7,500 federal tax credit and any available state credits. The consumer-focused XLT trim, which comes with much more comfort and tech, starts at $52,974. After the tax break, which Ford will likely exhaust in a hurry if it can make enough of the EVs, that puts Lightning in the mid-to high-$40,000 range or competitively priced with its gasoline-powered brethren. (The federal tax credit is only good for the first 200,000 vehicles sold.)
“For fleet customers, they consider cost of ownership. And cost of ownership is uptime,” said Palmer. “It had to be brutally secure, not have any downtime issues, and they need it to be serviced everywhere.” Ford has 2,300 dealers across the country that are all EV-certified and can even take the battery in a Lightning or Mach-E apart and replace individual modules. The company expects the fleet/consumer split to be similar between EV and ICE but wouldn’t provide any numbers.
“It will definitely drive the industry in terms of electrifying the kinds of trucks that people buy to do work,” says Sam Abuelsamid, an industry analyst with Guidehouse Insights, in an interview with Inverse. “They’re offering a truck that is very conventional. It does the things that truck customers expect a truck to do. It’s a truck-shaped truck that works like a truck.”
This is more than just nonsense to make fun of truck buyers. Many commercial customers — landscapers, carpenters, plumbers, and the like — have rigs that fit in the bed of their pickups, and those rigs will move from truck to truck. They’ll be able to do that with the F-150 Lightning if they opt for it.
“In every respect, this is an F-150,” said Abuelsamid. “That’s really important for those fleet customers.”
There are a lot of truck buyers in the US, and Ford alone sells nearly a million each year. Abuelsamid says that many of them wouldn’t consider something so weird as the Tesla Cybertruck, regardless of the performance numbers, simply because it’s too different. (Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said as much: “Cybertruck doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen bouncing around the Internet. It’s closer to an armored personnel carrier from the future.”)
“But once they drive this thing, it’s more powerful and faster than a Ford Raptor,” he said. “This makes a hell of a lot of sense.” Ford will benefit from two new audiences:
- Regular truck buyers who would never have considered an EV
- EV buyers who would never have previously considered a pickup truck
Abuelsamid thinks Ford could sell at least 50,000 to 75,000 Lightning’s in the first year, and maybe a lot more than that. Only the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y sell more than that of the EV nameplates currently available.
Ford matches Tesla in a key area: Charging app tech
Finally, there’s the killer app for Ford’s EVs: the FordPass smartphone app. It’s actually an entire cloud platform aimed at making EV ownership as easy as regular cars.
The key feature to FordPass is the route planning tool that takes into account where supported DC fast chargers are, whether they’re currently in use, and how much battery it will take to get there. You can check these from the smartphone app or the 15.5-inch in-car screen, and it’ll get specific as to how long you’ll need to spend at each fast charger and how much battery you’ll have when you arrive.
Other cars have this, particularly Tesla, but this is the first implementation that has been on par with the Tesla offering. And, with Electrify America charging stations, the F-150 Lightning supports plug-and-charge, where a driver simply needs to plug the charger into the vehicle to charge. (All the billing happens on the back-end and no interaction is needed with the charging station at all. Again, this is the same as the Tesla Supercharger, but it eliminates a huge pain point and a competitive advantage for Elon Musk’s EVs.)
“Those planning tools are very important,” Palmer tells Inverse. “We will be verifying the quality of the network and if there are issues, we’ll take them out of the network” and stop recommending them to users. If a charger isn’t working for a few days or longer, Ford will stop routing people to them until the problem is resolved.
“We’ll be constantly checking and updating our network for quality,” Palmer said. “We want availability and the best way to get that is to encourage investment into infrastructure and make it usable by all.”
That’s a bit of a repudiation of the one-company charging networks currently offered by Tesla and in the works from Rivian, the latter of which is a Ford partner and has taken major investments from the company. It’s worth noting that Rivian uses the same charging plug as the rest of the industry, potentially laying the groundwork for interoperability that isn’t possible with a Tesla Supercharger.
But the Tesla and Rivian networks are certainly customer-friendly, at least for their own owners, and Ford is trying to replicate that experience with FordPass. “We put together many networks” under one app,” Palmer said. “It’s not convenient for a customer to have different cards and passwords. And none of the networks have ever said no to partnering with us because we make it so easy.”
“We’re going to bring a lot of traffic their way. We’re converting the country’s best-selling vehicle to electric and they see the future potential,” Palmer said of the various charging networks.
“Our job is to make things seamless and convenient for our customers.”
This is an immensely significant moment for electric vehicles. There’s nothing more quintessentially American than the pickup truck, except maybe fried Twinkies and now the quintessential American pickup is going electric.
It’s hard to imagine describing any other EV as tough, but the F-150 Lightning appears to live up to Ford’s forty-year-old truck slogan. Time will tell if truck and EV buyers are willing to take the Lightning leap, but with all the new functionality and technology it likely won’t be too hard to convince skeptics to pull the trigger.
The “Built Ford Tough” F-150 Lightning will begin production in Spring 2022. Pre-order reservations can be made for $100 on Ford’s website. And unlike with the Model T, you can even order the Lightning in colors other than black. We’ve come a long way in the last hundred years.