Why rural embrace is vital for Ford's EV pickup truck
It's maybe odd to think of farmers as trendsetters, but in this case they will be
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
You’ve seen the ads. As a brawny pickup truck — its V8 engine roaring — kicks up dust while plowing through dramatic desert terrain, a stentorian voice declares that the vehicle is “Built Ford Tough.”
In other words, it’s not only rugged but you also need to be a manly man to drive one.
But what if there were no roaring engine. In other words, an electric vehicle. Aren’t those odd-looking Teslas (TSLA) driven by rich tree-huggers who fret about global warming?
And therein lies a dilemma for Ford (F) as it gets set to debut its F-150 Lightning EV. Will the generally conservative crowd — both politically and figuratively — who are the backbone of pickup sales, adopt the electric version of what has long been the U.S.’s best-selling vehicle? Also asking the same question, no doubt, are General Motors (GM), which has an all-electric Chevy Silverado in the works, and start-up Rivian (RIVN), whose much-lauded R1T pickup just hit the market.
The same discussions were being held at Ford four years ago when the Lightning was being hatched, reports Bloomberg. “We were dealing with a ton of skepticism internally,” said Linda Zhang, chief engineer on the project. “It couldn’t just be a battery on wheels. We wanted it to be a real American truck that does work.”
Meanwhile, John Murphy, who follows the auto industry of Bank of America (BAC), told NPR he thinks rural drivers such as farmers are key to EVs such as the Lightning catching on with the public. “Electric pickups may drive the real tipping point for electric vehicles,” he said, “meaning your mainstream Midwestern truck buyer may join the forces of the Teslas on the coasts to really start tipping the scale.”
Wanda Young, Ford’s chief marketing officer, is hopeful the Lightning’s design will strike a chord with rural residents. “You cannot separate a farmer from their truck,” she told NPR. “You know, it's just like their favorite pair of jeans.” She also mentioned other truck users, such as plumbers, landscapers, construction workers and landscapers.
Not discussed were suburban and exurban weekend warriors, who tend to buy luxurious fully loaded versions that add considerably to the bottom lines of Ford and other manufacturers.
Will they take a cue, as seems to have been the case so far, from the countryside crowd? Ford, Chevy and the rest certainly hope the EV embrace on those dusty backroads is a warm one.