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David Olive: Here’s why Ford’s F-150 Lightning might be the game-changer for electric vehicles

David Olive: Here’s why Ford’s F-150 Lightning might be the game-changer for electric vehicles
Business
Since its official unveiling last week, Ford Motor Co.’s all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck has become one of the global auto industry’s most talked about new-product launches in modern history — a near-match for the company’s introduction of its first Mustang, in 1964.

Several factors account for the unusual amount of buzz generated by the Lightning, which garnered 44,500 advance orders in the first 48 hours after its launch, close to a year before its arrival in showrooms next spring. It also garnered an endorsement from U.S. President Joe Biden, who at the Ford test track in Dearborn, Mich., and commented approvingly on the Lightning’s acceleration.

The Lightning has already won fans among both car buffs and electric-vehicle (EV) advocates. The latter believe that EVs are the planet’s most effective weapon in fighting climate crisis. They’re hoping the Lightning might be the EV that finally quickens the transition to EVs and away from greenhouse-gas belching vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines.

Bill Ford, executive chair of Ford Motor, hailed the Lightning as “a watershed moment for our industry.” He also described his pickup truck, a ubiquitous but prosaic fixture of the landscape, as a game-changer that ensures future generations “a cleaner planet.”

That’s a lot to ask of just one vehicle.

But as a potential gateway to roads dominated by EVs, the F-150 is in a class by itself. It has been the bestselling vehicle of any kind in both Canada and the U.S. for several decades. There are an estimated 17 million traditional F-150s on the road today, an immense “installed base” of users familiar with the vehicle.

Dating from the first Prius gas-electric hybrid car, launched in 1997, EVs have suffered an image as specialty items for eco-zealots and first adopters.

That accounts for EVs’ meagre 2.5 per cent share of vehicles on the road globally. There are other factors, to be sure, chief among is a fear of running out of juice on a road to nowhere, a phenomenon called “range anxiety.”

However, the North American market is likely to be receptive to an EV if it’s a pickup truck, given the enormous popularity of pickups — and the F-150 in particular — here.

Canada is already a leader in EV adaption. Zero-emission vehicle registrations rose to 3.5 per cent of the total last year, according to Statistics Canada. B.C. leads the country, with EVs accounting for a whopping 8.4 per cent of new vehicle registrations in 2020.

A March survey by KPMG found that nearly seven in 10 Canadians intend to make their next vehicle purchase an EV.

What makes the Lightning a potential game-changer is that its traditional internal-combustion stablemate has long been the chief means of getting around in the North American heartland.

A rather surprising number of hulking F-150s can be seen in the GTA, where a pickup’s cargo and towing capacity would seem to be of limited use.

In Middle America and Western Canada, though, pickups are deeply embedded in the culture, in cities and countryside alike. As a showcase for EV capability, the familiar F-150 might be the industry’s best shot at convincing some of the continent’s most change-averse motorists to finally give EVs serious consideration.

Just to be sure of that, the Lightning is priced for the mass market, with a base-model sticker price of just under $40,000 (U.S.). And that’s before government EV subsidies.

By comparison, the rival Tesla Cybertruck and the Rivian R1T, also not yet in showrooms, have base-model prices of just under $50,000 (U.S.) and $70,000 (U.S.), respectively. These are tentative prices that will likely change when the vehicles go into production.

Alas, only the upgraded Lightning XLT model will be available in Canada, priced at $68,000 (Canadian), again before government rebates.

Mind you, the XLT, with its extended-range battery, can power a house for three days in an emergency, or as long as 10 days with rationing. That feature, which has excited car fans more than any other, has caused the Lightning to be described as the “first dystopian car” of the century, for motorists with an “end times” mentality.

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Some remember the Texas blackout in February that left about 4.5 million homes and businesses without power for five days. Then earlier this month a case for EVs was made again by the ransomware cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, the U.S.’s largest pipeline system for refined oil products. The resulting gasoline shortages affected motorists in 17 states and Washington, D.C.

To boost its prospects for success, Ford has chosen two of its iconic models to spearhead its $27-billion commitment to an entire fleet of clean-energy models.

The Dearborn-based company has unveiled three EVs this year: the F-150, the Mustang Mach-E and a new E-Transit cargo van for commercial use.

Ford has hedged its bets with a Lightning of the same dimensions as the traditional F-150, so that the thousands of aftermarket products for traditional F-150s work with the Lightning as well. What’s more, each Lightning purchase comes with a charging station that fully charges the vehicle in about eight hours. These devices are DC fast-charger compatible, so that owners can boost the charge from, say, 15 per cent to 80 per cent in about 40 minutes.
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