America’s Favorite Pickup Truck Goes Electric
Ford’s F-series trucks make up the best-selling vehicle line in the U.S. Can its new F-150 Lightning compete with Tesla in the E.V. market?
January 24, 2022
When I was twelve, in 1971, the walls of my bedroom in southern New Jersey were covered with full-page photographs of rail dragsters and “funny cars” with swollen engines which I carefully razor-bladed from hot-rod magazines. My older cousin Charlie Seabrook and his car, the Jersey Jimmy, were well known on the East Coast drag-racing circuit. On Saturdays in warmer weather, Charlie and his brother Larry would work on engines down the road from my family’s farm, and I would hang around and watch, in love with the words they used—which showed up a few years later in Springsteen lyrics like “Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, and steppin’ out over the line,” in “Born to Run,” and “Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor,” from “Racing in the Street,” a song about guys like Charlie, the “hot-rod angels / Rumbling through this Promised Land.”
My cousins tried to teach me about how the power train delivers torque to the wheels. But I was more interested in car guys—the engineer cowboys who raced their “suicide machines” on weekends. Dreaming of one day having that kind of power and independence myself, I built plastic models of the cars that decorated my walls alongside their drivers, a gallery of petrol gods I knew chiefly by aliases: the Snake, the Mongoose, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, King of the Dragsters.
That year, the National Hot Rod Association’s Summernationals came to Englishtown, New Jersey. Charlie, who was eventually inducted into the N.H.R.A. Hall of Fame, was racing, and I got to go with some friends and stroll through the pits. Top-fuel dragsters run largely on nitromethane, a volatile fuel that contains oxygen. The pits were a mechanical Pamplona of nitromethane bulls, their belching tailpipes and fiery exhaust wrinkling the air, and their pit crews almost feral with the oddly fruity aroma of the fuel and the acrid stench of the smoking, treadless tires that the guys called slicks.
Ithought of Charlie, who died in 2016, and the Jersey Jimmy recently, at the opening of a pop-up theme park that the Ford Motor Company created in downtown Austin, Texas, in mid-October, to display its 2022 lineup of S.U.V.s, trucks, and vans. As of 2020, Ford no longer sells sedans in the U.S., a development that might have horrified my cousin, a confirmed car guy.
But, instead of the nitrous roar of the Englishtown pits, the most compelling sound I heard in Austin was the silence of Ford’s Mustang Mach-E as it zipped along a short track, to show off the rapid acceleration that electric vehicles, or E.V.s, are capable of. The Mach-E is a battery-powered version of the sports car that Ford introduced at the 1964 New York World’s Fair; Ford unveiled it as an electric S.U.V. in 2019, in keeping with the company’s move away from muscle and toward family vehicles with cargo space.
The star of the show was the F-150 Lightning—an electric version of the pickup that belongs to the best-selling vehicle line of any kind in the U.S. since the early nineteen-eighties. In a good year, Ford sells on average nine hundred thousand gas-powered F-series trucks, and earns about forty billion dollars annually from the line.
The Lightning, together with the Mach-E, and an electric Ford Transit, its cargo van, collectively represent the hundred-and-eighteen-year-old automaker’s best and perhaps last chance to catch up with Elon Musk and Tesla, the dominant company in E.V. sales. (Tesla delivered close to a million electric vehicles worldwide in 2021; Ford dealers sold only about forty-three thousand E.V.s globally last year.) When Ford’s electric truck goes on sale this spring, the future of mobility will meet America’s favorite ride—a momentous encounter not only for Ford but for all of us, whether we drive, bike, or walk. The future of the planet, and of human life on it, may depend on how rapidly the auto industry can reduce tailpipe emissions.
Until now, most consumer E.V.s have been sedans, like Tesla’s Model 3. But sedans are a dying segment of the over-all U.S. car market. During the nineteen-nineties, pickups and S.U.V.s were exempt from the luxury tax imposed on cars that cost more than thirty thousand dollars. These bigger vehicles were transformed from spartan conveyances into workingmen’s Rolls, and returned much larger profits than sedans could earn.
I bought an F-150 in 2015, with seventy-two-months of low-interest financing, to use on the former dairy farm in Vermont that has become our family vacation place and pandemic retreat. (The New Jersey farm is long gone.) But in cold months I park it on the street in Brooklyn, where you can sometimes find me in it, seeking solitude in the spacious back seat. I love my truck, although I have yet to bestow an affectionate nickname on it, as do one in four truck owners, according to a Ford-commissioned study, and I don’t have a truck tattoo, like fifteen per cent of my cohort. I was, however, more than a little excited to see my pickup’s new electric twin.
The Lightning was under wraps inside the Lightning Theatre, a large, multimedia-equipped tent in the middle of Austin’s Republic Square. Before the big reveal, attendees gathered outside in the hot sun to hear from a panel of executives about Ford’s plans for electrifying its fleet. Looming overhead was Bronco Mountain—a steel-girded vertical road that the automaker had erected to demonstrate the off-road climbing capabilities of its newly revamped S.U.V.
Ford has pledged that by 2030 forty per cent of its global sales will be E.V.s; ambitious benchmarks have also been set by General Motors, Volkswagen, and Toyota. These promises have proved popular with investors, but will enough car buyers switch from gas to meet such lofty goals? According to the International Energy Agency, only two per cent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2020 were E.V.s., far behind E.V. adoption rates in China and Europe. In Norway, seventy-five per cent of new car sales in 2020 were E.V.s.
Onstage, Linda Zhang, the forty-four-year-old chief engineer of the F-150 Lightning, was describing the electric truck’s “mega-power frunk.” In common with all E.V.s, the F-150 Lightning has no engine. Instead of a hunk of throbbing, greasy metal up front, there’s a lockable storage space large enough to fit two sets of golf clubs, and equipped with a drain so that the frunk can be filled with ice and drinks for tailgating, or “front-gating,” as Zhang put it. (“Frunking,” the logical neologism, was perhaps too risqué for a family brand.)
In addition to performing traditional tasks like hauling and towing, Zhang claimed, a Lightning with a fully charged battery could serve as an electric generator, powering a home for several days in the event of an electrical outage. “I know you guys have struggled a little bit with storms and the power outages,” she added, referring to Texas’s extreme cold snap last winter.
The audience was then invited inside the Lightning Theatre. The electric F-150 twirled on a dais while graphics flashed on a wraparound screen behind it, and a spokesperson touted the truck’s attributes. In contrast to the Mustang Mach-E, Ford has kept the styling of the F-150 Lightning almost exactly the same as that of the 2022 gas F-150, inside and out. One obvious difference is a horizontal bar of light that forms part of the hood and links the headlights.
Palmer noted that owners who have accessories that fit their existing F-150s—like the cover I have for my truck’s bed—won’t need to buy new gear. “Customers told us, ‘Do not mess with the bed!’ ” Palmer explained to me. Retaining the gas F-150’s body also saves Ford hundreds of millions in retooling costs. The trade-off is that the new electric truck doesn’t look very new.
Zhang invited me inside the Lightning to chat. She got behind the wheel, realized she didn’t have the key fob, and went to find it. I waited there, searching the dashboard for something to mark this milestone in automotive history. I counted the cup holders in the console: four, the same number as in my truck.
“Are you a car person?” I asked when Zhang returned. She replied, “Well, I moved here from China when I was eight.” Her first ever car ride was from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to West Lafayette, Indiana, where her father was pursuing a Ph.D. at Purdue University. “It was the middle of the night,” she recalled. “Such an impactful journey.”
Zhang’s father, after getting his Ph.D., eventually went to work for Ford. He sometimes brought his daughter along. “I thought, Wow, this is interesting. And a lot of the things he was doing he would talk about at the dinner table,” she told me. Zhang received three degrees from the University of Michigan, in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and an M.B.A. When she started at Ford, in 1996, she worked on Mustang engines and manufacturing; later she pursued development and finance. More than three years ago, she became chief engineer for the gas F-150s, and began the Lightning project.
I asked about the biggest engineering challenges that Zhang and her team faced. Power trains in electric cars have many fewer moving parts than those in gas-driven cars. Mechanically, they aren’t very complicated; the basic technology—a battery driving an electric motor—has been around since the eighteen-thirties, thirty years before internal-combustion engines came along. Electric motors are much smaller and more efficient than combustion engines. Motors convert more than eighty-five per cent of the energy they receive from the battery into motion, whereas engines use less than half of the energy produced by gasoline to power the vehicle.
The motors may be small, but the batteries aren’t. Zhang said that one of the challenges was figuring out how to fit a battery large enough for a target range of two hundred and thirty miles (this bumps up to three hundred miles with an extended-range battery) without having to change the shape of the interior or “delete” the spare tire. “Once you put the motor and the battery in, where do you have room for the spare?” She and her team found the room in a redesign of the truck’s undercarriage.
Which part of the truck was Zhang proudest of? That would be the frunk. We got out to peer inside. “Four hundred litres,” she said. “That’s a lot of beer.”
Bill Ford, the company’s sixty-four-year-old executive chairman, mused about the long, circular path back to electrification that the firm had taken when I spoke to him in November. Ford joined the family business in 1979, as a product-planning analyst; he’s been the chair of the board since 1999.
“Henry Ford worked for Thomas Edison,” he told me. In the early eighteen-nineties, Henry, who was Bill’s great-grandfather, was serving as the chief engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company, a local electricity plant, while devoting his spare time to a “quadricycle” with an internal-combustion engine that ran on gasoline at a time when most motorized transport was powered by lead-acid batteries or steam.
In 1896, Ford attended a banquet for Edison’s power-plant officers at the Oriental Hotel, in Coney Island, Brooklyn. After dinner, as Edison, then nearly fifty, and his managers were discussing electric vehicles, Alex Dow, Ford’s boss at the Detroit plant, pointed out his chief engineer to Edison and said, “There’s a young fellow who’s made a gas car.”
According to the account in “Taking Charge,” by Michael Brian Schiffer, the thirty-three-year-old Ford, asked if he wanted to meet Edison, said yes. The two engineers sat together and discussed Ford’s invention. Soon Edison began pounding on the table, and cried, “Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it! Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. . . . Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant.”
Edison had identified the problem with E.V.s then, and it’s still the problem now. Gasoline has vastly more energy density than the best battery. About twenty gallons of gasoline, which weighs a hundred and twenty pounds or so, will convey my gas F-150 around four hundred miles: close to twice the target range of the Lightning’s standard eighteen-hundred-pound battery. Part of the early appeal of the automobile, along with the everyday freedoms it offered, lay in “touring”—the ability to go long distances on a whim. Today, even though most people use their cars for shorter trips and fly longer distances, the mystique of touring remains.
By 1903, Edison had apparently changed his mind again about the power source for automobiles. “Electricity is the thing,” he told The Automobile that year. “There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order, no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline, and no noise.”
In January, 1914, in an interview with the New York Times, Henry Ford discussed a vehicle that he and Edison were building together. “Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile,” he said. Edison’s new nickel-iron batteries, supplied by the Edison Storage Battery Company, promised a range of up to a hundred miles. “At last,” Electrical World declared, “the electric vehicle is to have . . . a low price and quantity production”—roughly the same message I heard in Austin.
Only a few Ford-Edison cars were ever made. During the First World War, petroleum mechanized the conflict, and securing access to the world’s oil reserves became one of the motives for fighting it. And Edison’s battery didn’t work as advertised. Apparently, the Wizard of Menlo Park wasn’t exempt from the adage one hears from industry insiders about “liars, damn liars, and battery suppliers.”
Bill Ford noted that, with the discovery of oil in West Texas, “gasoline became so cheap that the whole fleet converted over.” He added, “I often wonder what would have happened had that discovery not occurred.”
Internal-combustion engines emit pollutants that can cause cancer, asthma, heart disease, and birth defects. In 2019, according to the E.P.A., transportation was responsible for twenty-nine per cent of U.S. greenhouse emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer, prompting average global temperatures and sea levels to rise, and putting the planet on a path to catastrophe. And now the company and the family whose products have contributed to this predicament are offering us a way out, by electrifying its icons. What’s not to believe?
The F-150 Lightning isn’t the only electric pickup coming to the market, nor is it the first one. Rivian, a startup headquartered in Irvine, California, has already begun deliveries of its R1T “electric adventure vehicle” to customers, with its R1S S.U.V. soon to follow. The next two or three years will bring an electric version of General Motors’ popular Chevy Silverado pickup, a battle-ready Hummer E.V., and the Cybertruck, Tesla’s deeply dystopian-looking pickup, which reportedly has more than a million advance orders. Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler, is also planning electric pickups and S.U.V.s. Electric sedans from Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Lucid, and Audi are on the market or in the offing.
Electric trucks are intended, in part, to appeal to drivers like me, who feel guilty about their gas-guzzler, as well as to citizens whose concern for the common good has kept them from buying a pickup at all. (Two hundred thousand people have reserved Lightnings with Ford dealers; most of those potential customers are neither pickup drivers nor Ford owners.) But will buying a Lightning absolve me of my sins against nature? If one calculates all the nonrenewable-energy costs incurred in manufacturing an E.V. pickup, including the mining and processing of battery metals—lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among others—and the worldwide shipping of those components, along with the percentage of fossil-fuel-based energy that goes into the grid that charges E.V.s (in 2020, less than twenty per cent of the electricity generated in the U.S. came from renewables), and then compares that with the environmental cost of driving my gas F-150, might keeping my old truck be the better option for now, at least until renewable-energy sources make the grid cleaner?
According to Rahul Malik, a battery scientist who is currently working in the natural-resources department of the Canadian government, even an E.V. plugged into a highly renewable grid must be driven for more than twenty-five thousand miles before it has lower “life cycle” emissions (which include the energy used in mining and manufacturing) than a combustion vehicle. And, as William Green, a professor of chemical engineering at M.I.T., pointed out to me, “if a person sells their used car and buys an E.V., that used car doesn’t disappear, it just has a new owner, so it keeps on emitting.” Ultimately, what matters is that first-time car buyers choose electric.
Then there’s the other big issue with pickups, whether they’re gas-powered or E.V.s: their size. Since 1990, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the weight of the average pickup has increased by twelve hundred and fifty-six pounds—thirty-two per cent. A recent post on Vice observed that the largest pickups and S.U.V.s today are as big as Second World War-era tanks. Now pickups are going to get heavier still. The Lightning, because of its lithium-ion battery, weighs approximately sixty-five hundred pounds; in some cases the pickup can be more than two thousand pounds heavier than its gas counterpart. You’ll be capable of assaulting a mountaintop redoubt, even if you’re just driving to the store for milk.
Not only are large E.V.s not as green as smaller E.V.s.; what about all the people who aren’t in big vehicles? Analysis from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association has shown that pedestrians who are hit by pickups or S.U.V.s are two to three times more likely to die than those who are hit by cars. In fact, the number of pedestrians killed by vehicles rose forty-six per cent between 2010 and 2019. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, if you count deaths against vehicle miles travelled, 2020 saw the largest increase in pedestrian fatalities (twenty-one per cent) since nationwide tracking started, in 1975. Even though fewer vehicles were on the road early in the pandemic, more people died.
In “The Road to Transportation Justice: Reframing Auto Safety in the SUV Age,” a forthcoming paper in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, John Saylor, a law student, argues that our entire concept of auto safety should be reconceived in the age of mega-vehicles, so that we focus not just on the people inside them but also on the people outside them, in other cars and on the streets. Automakers, for their part, say that adding cameras and sensors to vehicles will alert drivers to potential collisions, and, should autonomous-driving features be deployed, the vehicle might be able to take preventive action faster than any human. But autonomous vehicles, of course, pose a new set of possible hazards.
Still, 2022 looks like the year of the pickup. Ford is betting that, by making its vehicles greener through electrification, the company can increase profits, boost its stock price, and claim to be on the right side of the war against human-made climate change. Having come of age at a time when the well-being of U.S. automakers mirrored the well-being of the country, I want to believe that Ford can innovate in a way that preserves the pleasure I get from my F-150—a satisfaction that comes not only from its personal utility but also from the opportunity to help haul stuff for friends and neighbors—while reducing its emissions and the hazard it could pose on the road. But I recognize that the price we pay for this Panglossian scenario may well be a plenitude of pickups.
In mid-November, I toured the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, in Dearborn, Michigan, where the F-150 Lightning is being assembled in a new, five-hundred-thousand-square-foot “advanced manufacturing” plant. I was now one of the two hundred thousand people who had placed a deposit on a Lightning. Even though, in response to demand, Ford has increased the Rouge Center’s production capacity to a hundred and fifty thousand Lightnings a year, I was probably in for a wait of a year or more.
Inside the plant, Corey Williams, the manager, welcomed me to “hallowed ground.” The building is situated on a six-hundred-acre complex on the Rouge River which first began producing automobiles in 1927. There are eleven main buildings. The complex is thick with history—not just company and industrial and American history but also the history of the Ford family, and of the thousands of Ford families like Linda Zhang’s. Whether Ford’s epic industrial history is its singular advantage, as it seeks to compete with automakers like Tesla and Rivian with no legacy in gas-powered cars, or whether that history will drag the company into oblivion, will be partly resolved inside this facility during the next decade or so.
The original Rouge was a marvel of vertical integration, where a car could be made from raw materials, such as iron from Ford mines and timber from Ford forests in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in just a few days. Jim Farley, Ford’s fifty-nine-year-old C.E.O., told me after my visit that the symbolism of the location is important, because “we’re going back” to something more like Henry Ford’s ore-to-cars model, so that Ford won’t be so dependent on foreign battery-makers and on imported microprocessors. Ford is investing billions of dollars to build electric-vehicle and battery-making plants in Tennessee and Kentucky. The venture is a partnership with SK Innovation, a Korean company that is a major global manufacturer of battery cells. Still, China controls important ingredients of E.V. batteries, including cobalt, which comes primarily from Chinese-owned mines in Congo, and it currently dominates the processing of battery materials mined around the world.
“We’re not going to secure our future if we keep buying these things on the open market with everyone else, and buying them in Asia, where politics could affect our supply,” Farley said. Ford has formed a new partnership with Redwood Materials, a battery-recycling company launched by JB Straubel—a co-founder, with Elon Musk, of Tesla—and hopes that it will allow the company to obtain crucial components from old batteries, and not be so reliant on China. Redwood says it can recover more than ninety-five per cent of the critical materials in used batteries.
I followed Williams along the moving assembly line, the production method that Ford introduced at the Piquette Avenue Plant, in Detroit, in the early twentieth century. In the gas-F-150 assembly plant, a few hundred yards away from the E.V. center, a conveyor system under the factory floor moves the vehicles along the line, creating a dungeon-like din. In the new plant, autonomous, battery-powered “skillets” containing a truck’s chassis glide noiselessly along spotless polished-concrete floors. At each work-station, crews affix parts and the Lightnings begin to assume their familiar boxy shape. Having no fixed conveyance system makes it easier for the company to adjust capacity.
Another notable difference is the absence of paper checklists, which Williams said used to be knee-high at the other plant’s workstations; now everything is on screens. But perhaps the most significant difference is a dearth of human workers. Because E.V.s contain fewer parts, they take less work to put together, which means fewer workers are needed. The United Auto Workers wants to preserve existing jobs. President Biden, responding to these concerns, offered up to $12,500 in tax credits on E.V.s bought from unionized shops, like Ford, as part of the stalled Build Back Better bill, making the starting price of a Lightning, $27,500, an incredible deal. But the added incentive doesn’t really address the inevitability of autoworkers’ jobs becoming increasingly automated.
Only a fraction of Ford’s total U.S. workforce of around eighty-six thousand will work at the Rouge E.V. Center. The old Rouge employed a hundred thousand workers, and the gas-F-150 plant, across the tarmac, where a new truck rolls off the line every fifty-three seconds, employs four thousand workers. (Ford has announced plans to add nine hundred and fifty new jobs to keep up with demand for the Lightning and its hybrid F-150 model.) Williams, who gave President Biden a tour when Ford débuted the electric truck, last May, explained that computer vision enhances the visual inspection of the vehicles that humans conduct, but with greater objectivity. Cobots—collaborative robots—check all the wiring and the fluid connections before the cab and the bed go on the chassis.
We came to the largest of the robots, a Fanuc M-2000iA, which can lift a vehicle frame at least thirteen feet into the air. The robot deftly picked up the truck’s eighteen-hundred-pound Korean-made lithium-ion battery, which looked like a rooftop cargo-carrying case. The reinforced high-strength plastic shell contained hundreds of AA-battery-size cells filled with chemicals. The Fanuc placed the battery on the truck’s chassis, and the skillet floated farther down the line.
The electrification of Ford’s fleet isn’t the most challenging task that the company faces. As Jim Farley explained after my Rouge tour, “This industry is overly focussed on the propulsion change. But the real change is that we are moving to a software-defined experience for our customers.” That experience will gradually replace what drivers do now, until Ford’s fleet becomes fully autonomous, at some point years from now. “Can we sleep in our cars?” Farley asked, in a way that suggested the answer will be yes. “Can we use them as business places, so we leave for work an hour later?” Again, yes. “Then the drive totally changes.”
Farley’s maternal grandfather, Emmet Tracy, worked for Henry Ford in the foundry at the original Rouge—“An awful job,” his grandson said. Farley, who grew up around the world (his father was in Citibank’s international division), started his automotive career at Toyota, in 1990, where he worked as a marketing executive, helping to bring out the RAV4, Toyota’s compact S.U.V., and leading its luxury line, Lexus. Farley’s choice strained his relationship with his grandfather. By the time Farley joined Ford, in 2007, his grandfather was dead. He became the C.E.O. in 2020. Like Darren Palmer, Farley likes to race Cobras. He is a cousin of Chris Farley, the late comedian.
Farley pointed to the recent history of the mobile phone as “the most powerful proxy for what we are going through.” In 2007, he went on, “three of the biggest mobile-phone-makers were BlackBerry, Nokia, and Motorola.” A few years later, Apple- and Google-made mobile devices took over, and they were much more than telephones. “And the most important thing was that the software decided what kind of hardware got put on those machines,” Farley added. When it came to the device business, hardware-centric companies had given way to software-first ones, and the customer experience was defined by the embedded operating system.
Ford is at that juncture now. The automaker must come up with a vehicular version of Apple’s iOS for this software-first world in which Ford has very little experience. Historically, the company has outsourced electronics and software, and while the communication template is largely standardized, each supplier uses it differently. “We delegated our electrical systems and software to twenty suppliers,” Farley told me, “and different parts of the car can’t speak to each other—the software that controls seat movement can’t talk to the software that controls the door latch, say.”
Rather than E.V.s, Farley thinks of Ford’s future products as digital vehicles. Instead of depreciating from the moment you drive your new purchase off the lot, “the product will get better every day,” with regular software updates, allowing Ford to enjoy the kind of connected relationship with its customers that tech and gaming companies have. But how easy will that be?
Ford has long maintained a symbolic relationship with its customers, through ubiquitous advertisements (the company spent close to two billion dollars on advertising in 2020) that appeal to patriotism, family, helping others, and, for me, a piercing nostalgia for my boyhood on a farm. Ford buyers “shop for meanings, not just stuff,” Laura Oswald, the author of “Marketing Semiotics,” and a Ford consultant, told me. Yet the company has never maintained a direct relationship with its customers in the way Big Tech has. Also, it sells its vehicles through dealers. The intimate relationship between a connected device, an app, and its user can’t be sustained through myth and symbolic consumption alone. If cybersecurity, for example, becomes a major issue in a world of networked digital vehicles, as many predict, would I trust Ford to protect my electric truck just because it’s “Built Ford Tough”? All in all, Ford faces a monumental undertaking.
When Farley and I spoke, I was in a Ford conference room in Dearborn and Farley was on a big screen at the end of the room, at his desk in his Detroit apartment. (His wife and their three children live in London but will be joining him in Detroit later this year.) Farley admitted that moving to a software-defined driving experience was hard for people coming from the hardware world.
“I have to tell you, it’s an overwhelming job,” he said, then paused, tearing up. “It’s all-consuming, so that’s why I’m emotional. I miss my family—I wish I could be a better father and husband and go mountain biking and hiking, but that’s all gone now in the service of this transition.” He took another long moment. “But there are great American engineers,” he went on at last. “And no one knows their names.”
Farley was referring to, among others, Doug Field, a superstar engineer who began his career at Ford in the nineties, went on to Apple, where he designed hardware for the Mac, and to Tesla, where he led the software-development team for the Model 3. A few years ago, he returned to Apple, where he worked as V.P. of Special Projects (“I don’t know what it was,” Farley told me, “but it has something to do with a car”) before rejoining Ford in September as chief advanced technology and embedded-systems officer, responsible for delivering “seamless, delightful and always-on experiences” to drivers, according to the Ford Media Center.
Farley said that he had been at a racetrack with Field the previous weekend. “Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, there’s Jim Farley. He runs Ford, he races Cobras.’ I was with perhaps the most important American engineer of the past hundred years, and they didn’t even know who he is.” Field, who declined to be interviewed, seems intent on keeping it that way.
Ford lent me a Mustang Mach-E for several days, so that I could give electric touring a try. I invited my twenty-three-year-old son, Harry, along. Ford dropped off the sleek four-door in Brooklyn. Our destination, the Vermont farm, was two hundred and sixty miles away. In theory, this Mach-E, with an advertised range of around three hundred miles, could make it, but the car’s navigation system told me that I was going to need to recharge partway. The majority of E.V. batteries, the single most expensive component of the vehicle, are rated to last no more than eight to ten years, on average. To preserve a battery’s life, Ford recommends unplugging before eighty per cent, to avoid overheating the battery cells.
Having driven the route hundreds of times, I knew the filling stations and fast-food places by heart. Along I-95, I was used to seeing the Tesla Superchargers at the back of the service areas I frequent, but, owing to the terms of Tesla’s onerous patent, its charging stations aren’t compatible with Ford E.V.s and other electric vehicles. The Ford-friendly chargers have no Ford signage, and are discoverable only with the car’s navigation system or the FordPass app; many aren’t near the highway.
The first leg of the trip was spent in the familiar anxiety of afternoon rush-hour New York traffic, which seems worse than ever since the pandemic. It finally eased at Stamford, and I was able to test out the torque. Electric cars can’t maintain horsepower as long as gas cars can, because it’s hard to dissipate the heat that builds up in electric motors. But the motors can deliver microbursts of acceleration, without cycling through gears, in the way that an electric egg beater can go directly to the high-speed setting, skipping low and medium. My driver’s brain was far more engaged by these torquey sprints than by a steady rate of high speed. I’m pretty sure Cousin Charlie would have dug it. But the torque wasn’t truly satisfying until I turned on the “propulsion sound” in the “unbridled” mode (it’s a Mustang, remember), so that I heard the speed. Harry shook his head. O.K., Vroomer.
The navigation system correctly calculated that if we drove to the Electrify America direct-current chargers in the Chicopee Marketplace mall, in western Massachusetts, we would have twenty-four per cent of battery life remaining. We arrived after nine, so the vast parking lot was mostly empty. The Mach-E’s G.P.S. led us to the chargers—four plugs in green-glowing, gas-pump-like stations next to a Home Depot. Could this be right? No one else was using them.
We plugged in. The display on the charger said that it would take thirty-two minutes to reach seventy-four per cent, which would put us at the farm, still a hundred and nineteen miles north, with twenty-four per cent left. We walked toward the distant light of an Applebee’s, and had a father-son chat while I monitored the battery’s progress on my phone and ate ribs. This felt more like the opposite of range anxiety.
The Mustang didn’t charge much overnight on my 120-volt outlet. The car’s navigation system—or the spotty rural cell coverage—failed to route me to the closest Electrify America chargers, across the state border in New Hampshire, and, for safety reasons, I couldn’t use the FordPass app on my phone to navigate while the car was moving. Ford’s charging infrastructure will inevitably improve as more E.V.s hit the road. Today wasn’t my day. I finally found the charging stations in the West Lebanon Walmart parking lot, but they weren’t working properly, and angry drivers were on the phone with customer service. It was still raining; puddles had formed in the depressions around the chargers, and my feet got wet while I was trying to get a hundred and fifty kilowatts flowing into my car, which isn’t as unsafe as it sounds.But as we drove north the temperature quickly fell into the forties, and, as it did, our projected range kept diminishing. The navigation system apparently hadn’t figured this change in weather in its original calculation, which, at least to me, seemed neither seamless nor delightful. It began to rain. We were both showing signs of range anxiety by the time we arrived, at 11:30 p.m., nearing empty. We plugged into a regular outlet in the barn, in the dark.
Back in Brooklyn, I asked Harry if he thought that his first car would be an E.V. “I think that being a city boy has shielded me from the utility of cars,” he replied. He got an e-bike instead.
Erich Merkle, a Ford sales analyst, told me that during the past fifty years, as boomers have aged and prospered, “they have basically expanded and collapsed entire vehicle segments.” In the seventies, he explained, “they were just coming out of school, without a lot of money, looking for an economical and affordable vehicle.” That’s how the Japanese subcompact established itself in the U.S. market. In the eighties, with “boomers getting married and having kids, they flocked to the minivan,” which Chrysler started producing in 1993. Ford came out with the 1991 Ford Explorer S.U.V., which “looked cool and the minivan didn’t,” Merkle went on, adding, “The driver could feel good about being an adventurous person even while doing nine-to-five jobs.” S.U.V.s grew steadily bigger with boomer incomes and became Expeditions. Then, “Ford thought, People are buying these large S.U.V.s. What if we packaged the best of an S.U.V. into a pickup? So we moved people into these luxury crew-cab pickup trucks in the late nineties, and Ford hasn’t looked back since.”
Although I didn’t get to drive an F-150 Lightning, I did take one of its electric rivals, Rivian’s R1T pickup, from a Rivian service center in Bushwick to Far Rockaway and back. The truck starts at $67,500, but my ride, an Adventure Package model, which advertises three hundred and fourteen miles of range and comes with a natural-grained ash-wood dashboard, kicks off at $73,000—almost twice the Lightning’s starting price. For an extra five grand, there’s a two-burner induction cooktop and a sink, for those lonesome nights out on the range with the dogies.
Still, from my first glimpse of the truck’s front end I was smitten. Instead of the usual grille full of snarling chrome-plated chompers, the R1T’s retro-futuristic front end seemed to smile, and say, “You’re not buying this vehicle for work, or at least not the kind of work people used to do in pickups, are you, cowboy?” That was true. According to a survey, more than one in ten country songs released in 2019 mentioned pickup trucks, but I still haven’t heard any lyrics about truck-drivin’ me. With apologies to Glen Campbell, that song would go: Like a laptop cowboy / Sitting out here in my truck with my M1 MacBook Pro / Like a laptop cowboy / Tele-shrink sessions and watchin’ my favorite new shows / And then buyin’ more stuff on my phone.
The R1T is fifteen inches shorter than my nineteen-foot-long F-150, which means that it can fit into most garages. It has a smaller bed, but it also has an ingenious “gear tunnel”: a cuboid space that runs through the middle of the truck.
Rivian’s founder, thirty-nine-year-old RJ Scaringe, from Rockledge, Florida, who wears horn-rimmed glasses and has a wholesome demeanor, is often likened to Clark Kent. But he struck me more as Mozart to Jim Farley’s Salieri. Unburdened by incumbency, Scaringe can freely “mess with the bed,” without alienating an existing customer base.
Scaringe grew up next to the Indian River from which the company derives its name. His father founded a mechanical-engineering firm, and a neighbor, who restored vintage Porsches, allowed young RJ to help out. He became so car-obsessed that he would stash spare parts around his bedroom. “But I had this realization that these things that I was deeply in love with were also the source of so many of the world’s problems,” he told me. “There are geopolitical challenges, air-quality issues in most of the major cities throughout the world, and we’re essentially redesigning our atmosphere’s composition at levels that are hard to imagine. It felt like it was emotionally inconsistent to love something so much that you knew was bad.”
Scaringe received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. and a doctorate from M.I.T.’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory. On graduating, in 2009, he founded a company to build hybrid sports cars and coupes. A couple of years later, he renamed the company Rivian, and, recognizing that sedans were a shrinking category and that Tesla had already launched one, he started working on an electric pickup and an S.U.V. In 2017, Rivian’s workforce, which is non-union, moved into a former Mitsubishi factory in Normal, Illinois. Amazon invested more than two billion dollars in the company, and ordered a hundred thousand vans. Ford invested $1.2 billion.
When Scaringe talks about vertical integration, he’s referring not to raw materials but to the integration of software, electronics, and hardware. “From the start of building the company, software and electronics stacks are core to what we do,” he said. “So we’re building all the computers in the car, the software stacks that run those computers, and we integrate that. Which is very different from how the auto industry has evolved.” Scaringe was the only person I met in the auto industry who talked about “software stacks” with the kind of poetic intensity that Charlie used to talk about engine parts.
By the time I returned the R1T to Bushwick, this laptop cowboy had two sweethearts. I went on the Rivian Web site and, just for fun, configured an R1T for myself. Then I forked over a thousand refundable dollars to hold the reservation on a vehicle that may take even longer than my Lightning. At some point, I’ll have to choose—the sensible, reliable, and more affordable Lightning (provided the Ford dealer doesn’t add a huge markup, which seems possible, given demand), made in a union shop, or the R1T, an electric, digital vehicle designed from scratch that is truly new but doesn’t benefit from Ford’s manufacturing experience. Or I’ll keep my gas F-150, which I recently made my last payment on, and spare the world another truck.
Ispoke to Bill Ford on November 10th, the day that Rivian initiated an I.P.O. on the Nasdaq. By the end of the trading day, Rivian had reached a market cap of a hundred and one billion dollars (Scaringe was suddenly worth two billion), which made it for a time worth more than Ford, despite having no profits and little production history. (Ford’s valuation has since risen.) Although Ford’s investment in the startup paid off handsomely, Rivian’s stock price also showed that investors thought a startup that had at that point made just north of two hundred vehicles might have a better chance of transitioning into the age of digital cars than did Ford, one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Bill Ford seemed unbothered, however. “This is a blast,” he said, of this pivotal moment in family and company history. “I love this. All my career, I’ve kind of been waiting for this.” When he started calling for greener cars and manufacturing practices, more than twenty years ago, he has said, “the industry reacted like I was a Bolshevik.” Now, he reflected, “it’s here. I only wish I was thirty years younger.”
Last May, Ford’s daughter Alexandra Ford English, who started working for the company in 2017 as a manager in the autonomous-vehicle sector, became the first Ford woman to join the board. She was thirty-three—the age of her great-great-grandfather when he met Thomas Edison.
“She will live what I hoped to live,” her father said. “And that will be very cool.”