Written October 12, 2022, at 07.00Updated on October 12, 2022 at 8:17
The big blue hood appears as a trophy just above the offices: ‘Dearborn Truck Plant Welcomes Joe Biden’, it says below the logos of Ford and the UAW, the American Auto Workers union. Autographed by the President of the United States on May 18, 2021, this metal plate symbolizes a new era for the American car: it was on this day that the manufacturer unveiled the electric version of the best-selling car in the United States. States: The F-150 Lightning pickup.
A year later, in June 2022, the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, in the suburbs of Detroit (Michigan), began delivering its first units. This brand new building on 4.5 hectares is located in the heart of one of the oldest car factories in the world, the Rouge River Complex, built by Henry Ford in the 1920s. But the production of the F-150 Lightning has nothing to do with production lines of the last century.
There are no deafening assembly lines here: latest-generation robots and flat screens are ubiquitous, and body parts, chassis and batteries are brought silently from station to station by autonomous trucks, depending on the parts and available workers. “It’s one of the first factories to use autonomous robots for this purpose,” explains Chris Skaggs, head of electric vehicle planning and production at Ford.
If it portends the car factories of the future, the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, where Ford has invested $950 million and created 750 jobs, also announces its ambitions in the electric vehicle. In a market very clearly dominated by Tesla, which concentrates 70% of electric car sales in the United States, the Detroit veteran, the sixth largest manufacturer in the world, began a forced transformation two years ago. Last spring, it announced its separation into two separate units: one, Ford Blue, to produce thermal engine models; the other, the Ford Model e, specializing in electric vehicles.
The electrification of the F-150, its undisputed bestseller with 726,000 units sold in the US last year, or a third of sales, is a significant step in this strategy. It is also a stone in the garden of Tesla, which continues to delay the release of its Cybertruck, a pickup truck with a very futuristic appearance that was presented in 2019.
“When we decided to move toward electric vehicles, we looked at what was being done around the world,” tells “Echos” Darren Palmer, vice president of electric vehicle programs at Ford Model e. We concluded that it should offer things like gasoline models had never done. Equipped with 120 and 240 volt outlets, the F-150 Lightning can thus use its battery as a generator, and even supply a house with power in the event of a power outage. “We also felt that Ford should be present in the most popular categories,” he continues.
Following this logic, Ford first developed an SUV with a sporty look (“crossover”), the Mustang Mach-e, released in 2021, before switching to a pick-up. “This category is particularly important to us, both because it affects a very broad range of customers and because Ford is the market leader,” says Darren Palmer. A seemingly paying calculation: By the end of 2021, even before he finished building the F-150 Lightning factory, Ford had registered 200,000 pre-orders.
Hard to imagine from France, where these high utility vehicles on wheels and equipped with a platform represent less than 1% of sales (5,938 vehicles sold from January to August 2022, all brands combined), partly due to the system of ecological bonus malus, but in the US, pickups are ubiquitous. We meet them on country roads, in front of building sites, in national parks, in supermarket car parks and even in the heart of big cities.
One in four cars sold in America is a pickup, and while their primary target was farmers and contractors, today they are aimed at a much wider audience. “In the 1990s, manufacturers realized that it could also attract family customers and position it as a car that can do everything,” analyzes Bertrand Rakoto, an automotive consultant in Detroit for the Ducker company.
Often equipped with four doors, with an interior space similar to a large SUV, “the collector is seen as a practical vehicle for going camping, for transporting plants, DIY materials or children’s bicycles, says Bertrand Rakoto. It is part of a lifestyle where people have few holidays and prefer the outdoors as soon as they have some free time. »
In the first quarter of 2022, the three best-selling vehicles in the United States were three pickups: Ford’s F-series, to which the F-150 belongs, leading car sales continuously for more than forty years, followed by the RAM 1500, a brand of the Chrysler group ( Stellantis) and Chevrolet Silverado (General Motors).
In the race to produce the first electric pickups, Detroit’s “big three” have been overtaken by a newcomer, Rivian. Founded in 2009 by RJ Scaringe, a young engineer who had just graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this start-up established itself in 2017 with two prototypes: a pick-up and an SUV. Rivian, often referred to as a “mini-Tesla,” won over investors long before it built any vehicles.
Among its first shareholders: BlackRock and the Soros Fund Management funds, but also Ford (which has since sold its shares) and especially Amazon, which ordered 100,000 vans from them. The IPO last November was an unprecedented success: from $78, the price doubled in a few days, and the valuation of Rivian was close to $160 billion, far ahead of General Motors or Ford.
Since then, the excitement, like the stock market, has fallen below $40. The young manufacturer, which delivered its first R1T pick-ups in the fall of 2021, is facing production difficulties, especially linked to the shortage of components affecting the automotive industry. Its plant in Normal, Illinois, acquired in 2017 from Japan’s Mitsubishi, plans to produce only 25,000 vehicles this year, half the expected number. And it just recalled almost all of the ones already built because of a problem with the steering.
Like Tesla before it, Rivian has positioned its vehicles in a high-end segment (prices start at $67,500). Smaller than the F-150, the R1T is aimed more at families and outdoor enthusiasts than professionals. On its website, Rivian (which did not want to answer our questions) presents it as “the first electric vehicle for adventure”, in desert or mountain environments. “We are much more on a social vehicle, even luxury, than on a professional vehicle, and the brand does not hide it”, believes Bertrand Rakoto.
It is a position on the border of snub, a way of saying ‘You knew me very polluting, I come back in a clean version’.
Bertrand Rakoto Automotive consultant in Detroit for Ducker
Party first, Rivian wasn’t alone in selling an electric pick-up for long. Already in December, General Motors, via its GMC subsidiary, delivered its first model in spades: the Hummer EV, the resurrection in a zero-emission version of a machine that has long symbolized all the car’s excesses “made in the USA”. Like its predecessor, the new Hummer is a monster, both in terms of weight (4.1 tons) and price ($110,000 for the first edition). “It’s an attitude bordering on snub, a way of saying ‘You knew me very polluting, I’ll come back in a clean version'”, judge Bertrand Rakoto.
Contrary to this strategy, Ford has never made a secret of having big ambitions for the F-150 Lightning, targeting all audiences for this. The model is available in a “pro” version, that is, without frills, for under 50,000 dollars, although the price can be close to 100,000 dollars in the luxury version, with leather seats and Bang & sound system.Olofsen.
Darren Palmer tells how, at the start of the project in 2019, Ford teams went to Texas, the first pick-up market, to meet owners to talk to them about an electric version. “They laughed at us at first, they said that it was not for them! Then we talked about other thermal models, and finally we told them that we had one last news, the name of which we could not give, but only the characteristics : an output of 580 horsepower, 4.5 seconds from 0 to 100 km, that kind of thing… When we told them it was an electric F-150, they couldn’t believe it. One of them wanted to order it with the same! “
The professional market is also seen as a response to the limited autonomy of electric vehicles: most utilities go back to the garage every night, avoiding dependence on public charging stations. “Companies and craftsmen have well-identified needs, which often correspond to electric cars,” says Bertrand Rakoto. “The US government has also chosen to electrify its supply fleets. »
In the same vein, Ford even introduced a version of the Lightning this summer designed specifically for police forces in American cities. But “it’s a mistake to think it’s a vehicle only for professionals,” says Darren Palmer. In fact, half of the people who ordered a Lightning had never owned a pickup truck before. »
Ford, GMC and Rivian should enjoy a free ride for another year or two. General Motors’ Silverado EV, unveiled in mid-September at the Detroit Motor Show, won’t be delivered until the summer of 2024. RAM is due to present a model in November, again with production two years away at the earliest. As for Tesla’s Cybertruck, it’s hard to predict when it will hit US roads: Elon Musk has promised it will be produced next year at his new factory in Texas, but he had previously talked about a 2021 release, then in 2022.
While waiting for competition, the biggest problem for the electric pick-up pioneers will be producing enough to meet demand. So far, GMC has produced less than 800 Hummers. Rivian, for its part, delivered nearly 14,000 vehicles in a year, half of them in the last quarter. As for Ford, which does not communicate the number of deliveries, it indicated that it had sold a total of 8,760 F-150 Lightning per year. 30th of September.
The automaker, which plans to invest $30 billion in electric vehicles, has set a goal of making 150,000 electric pickups a year by the end of next year. In suburban Detroit, right next to the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, work has already begun to double the size of the facility.