All-Electric Pickup Truck, Engine Is Future of US Economy

The gas station has been a fixture of our roads and neighborhoods since the internal-combustion-engine car took hold in the early 20th century.

These multicolored, brightly lit shrines to car culture introduced us to all kinds of different rituals: learning to pump gas with a parent, worrying about getting stranded when the “empty” light blinks on, seeing the prices climb and fall on the giant board on the corner. The sticky, pungent fumes from diesel and gasoline are a reminder of how much time and energy we pump into our vehicles.

But my first child, who is due in January, will never get accustomed to this Church of Petrol, because over the past year my family has gone 100% electric. Last fall, my wife leased a Tesla Model 3, and this fall I followed her lead with a brand-new Ford F-150 Lightning. 

After driving the F-150 Lightning for a month, I can say without reservation that it’s amazing — it drives like a luxury sedan, is full of bells and whistles, and my “refueling” bill has plunged. But the process of getting the truck was far from ideal — beset by production delays, missing parts, and unresponsive customer service. There are still a few kinks to be worked out before electric vehicles can dominate the US market — the road to an electrified American auto industry is going to be a bumpy one.

Why go electric?

For me, the most important driver for buying an electric vehicle was that it feels like a giant step toward a decarbonized future. There is no way to reduce carbon emissions to something the planet can manage without decarbonizing transportation, and I’m excited to be an early adopter in that transition.

There’s also the question of: Why Ford? Sure, Teslas have been around forever — I even have one in my garage. But Tesla’s dubious record of pushing the limits with “self-driving” technology, a chaotic CEO, issues with build quality, and a limited lineup kept me from following my wife into the largest EV brand. Rivians and flashy new upstart “Tesla killers” were also an option, but buying from those companies felt like buying a Delorean. Rivian will most likely be around 10 years from now, but it’s got a rockier path than an established manufacturer. No other EV manufacturer offered the upsides of a Ford: an icon of the American auto industry and absolutely dominant truck brand with a dealer always close, spare parts readily available, and a track record of building trucks well.

I’ve lived most of my adult life in North Carolina, and since moving here, the regional enthusiasm for pickup trucks has always made sense to me. Pickups, especially full-size pickups like the F-150, are incredibly comfortable, loaded with storage space, and can do just about anything a personal vehicle needs to do. Hauling three-quarters of a ton of pine logs to the local recycling center is something a smaller vehicle just doesn’t handle well, and my enormous body has always found climbing into a sedan uncomfortable at best.

But despite this enthusiasm for the form, I was never able to get my head around their terrible fuel economy: Most of the gas-guzzling trucks that are a fixture of the South only get 10 to 15 miles per gallon. My Lightning, on the other hand, is both zero-emission and means I’m not spending exorbitant amounts at the pump. The combination of higher thermal efficiency and non-carbonized sources for electricity means the CO2 impact of driving my new truck is a tiny shadow of what it used to be. Based on statewide electrical-generation and emissions statistics and information from my own cars, the carbon emissions for driving a mile are about 71% lower in my new truck than they were in my old 2013 Toyota RAV4. Electricity is also inexpensive where I live, so I save a similar amount of money on fuel as I reduce my emissions.

Supply-chain nightmare

While my new EV has been a joy behind the wheel, the road to get it was arduous and shows that the industry has a long way to go in smoothing out supply-chain issues. Manufacturers have worked out the process of building gas-guzzling ICE — or internal-combustion engine — cars over a century of fine tuning and tweaking. While electric vehicles can borrow a lot of that institutional knowledge, new technology and business models mean there is still a way to go before everything is smooth sailing.

The troubles can start at the very beginning with ordering the car. Following in the footsteps of Tesla, auto manufacturers have decided to flip the buying process. Instead of producing a boatload of vehicles and shipping them to dealers for customers to peruse and test drive, many manufacturers are trying to increase profits by pushing consumers to order vehicles ahead of time. This means manufacturers are less likely to overproduce and can maximize what they charge for a given customer’s preferred vehicle. Letting customers pick the exact features they want for each unit ordered makes price discrimination — a technical term for maximizing what a business charges for a product or service depending on the customer buying — much easier for manufacturers.

author george pearkes standing with his new ford f-150 lightning

While the new F-150 Lightning has been a joy behind the wheel, the road to get it was arduous and shows that the industry has a long way to go in smoothing out supply-chain issues.

Raquel Pearkes/Insider

It is vanishingly unlikely that Detroit will do away with dealers entirely, but as manufacturers shift to an order-ahead model, there are gaps in communication that can prove frustrating for customers. In my experience, this meant placing an initial deposit down for my truck in May 2021, waiting with minimal word from Ford until June 2022 when the company told me my spot had come up and I could formally order the car, and only being notified production had started in mid-August. And once the car is ordered, there can be other delays. Any manufacturing process that ties together thousands of battery cells, multiple electric motors, and hundreds of microchips before packing them together into a vehicle that will roll for hundreds of thousands of miles is going to run into a few hiccups along the way. So for the next few years, expect some manufacturing problems, from a small number of cars rolling off the lines when manufacturers announce new models to product recalls as consumers and companies discover flaws in the technology.

I had my own run-in with the downsides of this learning curve. After rolling smoothly off the assembly line by the start of September, my truck was shipped to North Carolina but got stranded and ended up sitting partially complete in a Winston-Salem rail yard for multiple months. Getting sufficient information about why it was sitting in a parking lot 90 miles away proved to be a major headache. The Ford corporate employees I called had no idea why the truck wasn’t moving, and my dealer was unresponsive without aggressive prodding. After an angry phone call, the dealer shared that one of their systems showed the truck on “chip hold,” indicating it was waiting for a single computer chip. It stayed there for weeks until I angrily tweeted about it, tagging Ford and the company’s CEO. Maybe it was luck, or maybe someone high up at Ford was reading their mentions that day, but my truck was completed a week later. Not the best way to manage production, especially when so many customers don’t have the luxury of a social-media platform to use. Those sorts of gaps in the order process are exasperating and until they’re worked out it may be hard to convince consumers to jump into EVs with both feet.

What’s it like to drive?

Despite the headache of getting the car, my Lightning has been incredible to drive. Since EVs are the newest generation of vehicles, they’re loaded with features: everything from parking assistance to Apple CarPlay to cooled seats to driver-assistance technology. If you’re buying a new EV, expect a huge upgrade from an older car.

EVs also have a massive leg up in performance over traditional vehicles. EVs are nearly silent, with no engine noise getting in the way of tunes, podcasts, or conversations on the road. Handling and accelerating in an EV is so vastly superior to an ICE vehicle of the same class that the idea of driving even a top-of-the-line ICE car would feel like going from track spikes to snow boots. As someone that appreciates a smooth ride and the ability to punch it when I have to, I won’t go near a rumbling gas-powered engine ever again.

While range anxiety is a hold-up for many potential EV buyers who have nightmares about being stuck on the side of the road unable to find a charging station or outlet, in the several weeks I’ve owned my truck, I’ve taken it below 30% charge only once and have never had to charge anywhere but my own garage at night. Keep in mind that 99.3% of US passenger auto trips are less than 100 miles, and charging stations are now widely available at retail stores, gas stations, and other high-traffic zones. 

Buy EV, buy American

Despite the snags, America’s march to an electric-vehicle fleet is inevitable. For one thing, the US government is putting all its weight into getting more drivers behind the wheel of EVs. This past summer Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides Americans with thousands of dollars in tax credits for purchasing EVs. And based on the structure of the IRA, much of the electric future will be American-made. Over the next several years, manufacturers will be required to assemble both vehicles and batteries in the US if they want buyers to have access to the EV credit.

And as demand for EVs soars due to subsidies, lower cost of ownership, and more enjoyable driving, factories from Michigan to Tennessee to Georgia are going to produce not only new EVs but the battery packs they need, too. For communities that play host to battery and EV factories, the capital investment and ongoing employment from factories can remake an entire region’s prospects by providing a floor for labor markets.

Even without the prodding from the government, car companies have shown a keen interest in shifting their fleets toward electric vehicles for business reasons. The auto industry famously requires a lot of upfront cash investment and is very sensitive to the broader booms and busts of the economy, but management at auto companies hope EVs will increase profitability and reduce the boom-and-bust cycles of car buying. Fewer moving parts and faster assembly, smaller component inventories, and the ability to charge for software upgrades over time are positives for companies that have struggled to earn consistently high returns.

A little investor mania doesn’t hurt either. Tesla of course is a market-cap titan with a $546 billion valuation, even after dropping by 50% this year. Ford gained over 170% from pre-COVID levels at its peak last year when the market slapped its highest multiple on expected earnings since 2015. Other auto manufacturers have also seen similar spikes thanks to enthusiasm for EVs, including Volkswagen’s 77% rally from October 2020 to April 2021. Many manufacturers have seen their stocks slide recently due to concerns of a slowing global economy, but it’s clear that these carmakers are committed to the electric shift — by the 2030s, electric vehicles will make up the overwhelming majority of sales and profits for manufacturers.

America’s all-electric future

Despite the bumps in the road, I couldn’t be happier with my Lightning now that it’s here. It’s the most comfortable and useful vehicle I’ve ever owned, offering huge reductions in fuel costs and carbon emissions, along with a phenomenal driving experience. I’m confident that the vast majority of American drivers will eventually quit the Church of Petrol, too. When they do, they’ll save money and be behind the wheel of a superior machine that was part of a resurgent American manufacturing sector. It’s never easy to make a big change in life, and the bumpy path away from gas pumps and toward chargers has its difficulties, but for all the frustrations, the effort is worth it.

George Pearkes is the Global Macro Strategist for Bespoke Investment Group. The author does not have any position in any stock mentioned in this piece. Clients of the author’s employer own the following stocks mentioned: Ford (F). This piece is not intended as a recommendation to buy or sell any security.

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