The New F-150 Is Ford's Lifeline. Are They Betting on the Wrong Thing?

Ford is directly competing with Chevy and Ram while electric upstarts look to dethrone them all

June 26, 2020 11:05 am
The new 2021 Ford F-150 pickup truck
The F-Series is king, but Tesla, Rivian and Lordstown want to dethrone it.

The revamped 2021 Ford F-150 is here. In Thursday night’s online-only reveal, a first for the automaker, the new F-Series pickup truck proved to be bigger, but not in the ways many expected. The dimensions are similar, but there’s a big touchscreen, bigger work surfaces and big electric power (courtesy of the model’s first-ever hybrid powertrain). Whether the pickup is better than the previous lineup will only be seen after it’s put to the test by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who will inevitably buy it.

Whether or not you’re interested in buying a truck yourself, you should care about this release. Why? For one, it’s the first major redesign since 2015. But more importantly, you should care for the same reason everyone cares about new Apple iPhone releases: it’s one of the most consequential consumer products in the U.S., with the potential not simply to change Ford’s fate but to disrupt the entire industry.

In a recently released analysis from Boston Consulting Group, it was found that F-Series pickups were responsible for about $42 billion in revenue in 2019, making the trucks alone (not including any other Ford products) more profitable than McDonald’s, Nike, Starbucks and even Coca-Cola (and more than the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL combined). 

How is the new F-150 going to disrupt the world, if further disruption is even possible at this point? The first-look consensus among automotive reporters seems to be that the redesign is fairly conservative. Ford seems to be in the lane of not messing with perfection — that is, not messing with their happy customers, especially as competitors like “Chevy Silverado and Ram Trucks have been aggressively working to eat away [their market share],” as the Detroit Free Press wrote.

But what if Chevy and Ram aren’t the companies Ford should be worrying about? While these giants of the current truck landscape are squabbling over the present — all placing bets on refined, tweaked and polished versions of their money-makers — burgeoning automakers like Tesla, Rivian, Lordstown and Nikola are building the future. And if Ford doesn’t take the newcomers seriously, there’s a serious chance the F-150 will lose the long game.

The future we’re talking about is the all-electric pickup truck, which all four of those upstarts are trying to bring to the market first. Of course, Tesla may be the only company among those four that comes up in any serious conversations in Ford boardrooms (at the time of writing, Tesla is currently the most valuable automaker in the entire world), but just because Ford isn’t taking the rest seriously doesn’t mean they aren’t seriously gunning for Ford’s lunch. 

2021 Lordstown Endurance electric pickup truck
Lordstown hopes to have the first Endurance electric trucks to customers in early 2021.

After all, Lordstown Motors Corp. held the official unveiling for the Endurance, which it hopes will be the first commercial electric pickup to market, on Thursday, just eight hours before the F-150 launch event. When reached for comment, a PR rep said, “It was never in the plan to launch with Ford, or any of the other brands.” But the truth is the F-150 date was out there before the Lordstown date was announced, so don’t tell me there isn’t at least some friendly competition happening here. (For what it’s worth, the Lordstown event featured Vice President Mike Pence, while the F-150 event featured Denis Leary. Crossing my fingers the final production Cybertruck launch features X Æ A-ii.) 

As we pointed out last year, the number of internal-combustion passenger vehicles sold in a year has peaked, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has changed automotive forecasts somewhat, as BloombergNEF predicts, “By 2040, over half of all passenger vehicles sold will be electric.” So if this new 2021 F-150 is the first time the truck is getting a hybrid powertrain, where is Ford’s all-electric pickup that’s going to compete with everyone else?

In conjunction with the vehicle release, Ford also unveiled some new climate goals, including a plan to go carbon-neutral globally by 2050. But as for its electric truck, so far only a prototype has been trotted out for Criss Angel-esque stunts, and a new press release confirmed that it will be arriving “within 24 months.” It’s not clear whether it will simply be unveiled at that time or actually be at dealerships (we’d bet on the former), but in either case, Ford is extending its deadline out until June 2022. 

Meanwhile, Lordstown has said its Endurance will be delivered to the first customers in early 2021. Rivian planned to deliver its R1T model in 2020, but because of the coronavirus those will likely also get into the world early next year (also, Ford is an investor). Nikola hasn’t made any official promises, but it has been making waves with unprecedented stock market gains following the announcement of its electric and hydrogen-powered trucks. Meanwhile Tesla is eyeing Austin as a potential home for Cybertruck production, which is expected to begin in 2021. And unlike the rest of the pack, the latter has been green-lit by Leno.

The Rivian R1T electric truck driving on the beach
Rivian’s electric R1T is backed by Amazon, T. Rowe Price and even Ford itself.
© 2020 Jeff Johnson via Rivian

If you’re a proud F-Series owner, an electric skeptic or even a realistic EV fan, you might be thinking to yourself, EV trucks as a real-life concept haven’t even been proven yet! And you’d be right. (Last year when I spoke with Dan Edmunds, then the Director of Vehicle Evaluation at Edmunds, he called the experience towing with a Tesla Model X “miserable.”) But you’d also be pointing out the obvious. Of course electric pickups haven’t been proven yet; if they had, you’d see more than sushi-crazed CEOs joyriding in them. But someone will prove the electric-truck concept first, and right now, it doesn’t look like Ford will be the one to do it.

If multiple rookie auto brands beat the F-150 to the EV starting line, innovate beyond anything the old guard is expecting and do it all while bringing back American manufacturing (as Tesla, Rivian and Lordstown are planning to do, while Ford has been falling off), then Chevy and Ram are the least of Ford’s worries.

“The world has changed.” Those were the first words uttered in the F-150 online reveal by COO Jim Farley. He was talking about the pandemic, but if Ford doesn’t make electric vehicles a priority, they may soon be repeating that phrase on their porch rocking chairs as they watch R1Ts and Cybertrucks silently drive by.

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