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Ford's big bet on an electric F-150

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Ford wants to be the company that takes electric vehicles "from niche to normal," said Annie White at Car And Driver. Last week, the company released details of the F-150 Lightning, the upcoming electric version of its best-selling pickup. Slated for sale in spring 2022, it boasts more torque than its gas-guzzling siblings — "This sucker's quick," President Biden said when he took one for a test drive — and enough juice to "power a home for a week or more." The Lightning takes full advantage of its electric capabilities, with a front trunk — or "frunk" — replacing the conventional engine, and 11 outlets that could be used for power tools. Ford's F-series pickups have been "the top-selling vehicles in the U.S." for 39 consecutive years. Last year, almost 800,000 were sold in the U.S., compared with 292,000 Teslas. If a large share of F-150 buyers go electric, it will transform the industry.

The Lightning will join a new batch of trucks that aren't "your California cousin's EVs," said Christopher Mims at The Wall Street Journal. "If previous electric autos were marketed to people concerned about climate change," trucks such as GM's electric Hummer, Chevy's electric Silverado, and the Tesla Cybertruck are being "pitched to people more concerned about surviving its aftermath." They could turn "guys who grew up on '60s muscle cars" into "accidental environmentalists." Republicans have cast EVs as "a lefty pet project," said Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post. But "the Lightning — and other fast, cool, affordable products attractive to conservative and liberal customers alike — will make this strategy harder to sustain."

EVs do have a political significance, said Michael Schuman at The ­Atlantic, because they are a crucial contest in the proxy war between Washington and Beijing. "The transition to electric has offered China a fresh opportunity" to build an internationally competitive automobile industry "practically from scratch." China's government has lavished EV startups with more than $100 billion in subsidies and other aid. The White House is right to back vehicles like the F-150 Lightning to maintain U.S. leadership.

The question for Ford is whether the Lightning's features are enough to "persuade the heartland to go all-electric," said Paul Eisenstein at NBC News. Dealers are seeing promise; one suburban dealer in Michigan said that advance reservations for the electric truck already equal about two months' worth of Ford F-150 sales. But buyers in some of Ford's rural markets are more skeptical. In areas with less infrastructure, the truck's range — 230 miles for the regular model, 300 for extended-range versions, and possibly much less when towing a heavy load — could be a serious issue. Biden's infrastructure bill "envisions a national grid of 500,000 high-speed chargers, making it easy to travel anywhere without range anxiety," but that grid is yet to be built out. Ford and other automakers don't underestimate the challenges involved, said Camila Domonoske at NPR — "chargers that need to be built, supply chains that need to expand, factories that need to be retooled." But they're finally willing to do it, in "a big strategic bet on the rise of electric vehicles." 

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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