Electric Pickups Could Make or Break Biden’s Infrastructure Plans

Source: By Jim Tankersley, Coral Davenport and Neal E. Boudette. New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The transition to an electric-car future will be an uphill battle, with the president and Republicans in Congress at odds over his $4 trillion economic agenda.

President Biden visited a Ford factory in Dearborn Mich., on Tuesday. He called for spending hundreds of billions of dollars for domestic manufacturing, electric vehicle deployment and research into emerging technologies like advanced batteries.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden had toured a vehicle factory and delivered a policy speech, but he was not going to leave Michigan without taking a new electric pickup truck out for a spin.

He raced around a test track in the electric version of Ford’s iconic F-150 pickup, showing off the features he and his administration say could help to sell Americans on a low-emission, electric-car future that stretches from suburban driveways to rural back roads.

“This sucker’s quick,” Mr. Biden told reporters through an open window of the prototype truck, before hitting the gas.

But the transition he is championing, from gas guzzlers to plug-in powerhouses, will be anything but swift. Mr. Biden and Republicans in Congress are at odds over the president’s $4 trillion economic agenda and the best way to help America in its race with China in the decades of global economic competition to come.

In remarks on Tuesday at the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, Mr. Biden called for spending hundreds of billions of dollars for domestic manufacturing, electric vehicle deployment and research into emerging technologies like advanced batteries.

He was flanked by trucks from the best-selling vehicle line in the country and cheered on by Detroit automakers and autoworkers who want the government to help pull the industry to the head of what they see as an inevitable but difficult global competition to scrap gasoline-powered cars in favor of electric vehicles. That transition is already hampered by supply chain snags and by autoworkers’ fears of lost jobs, which the president is seeking to alleviate with his infrastructure push.

In Washington, where two of Mr. Biden’s cabinet secretaries met with Senate Republicans in an effort to broker a bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending, conservatives continued to pump the brakes on the president’s electric-vehicle ambitions.

Senate Republicans say their counteroffer to Mr. Biden’s infrastructure proposal would include some spending on electric vehicles, but they are unwilling to come close to the dollar figures Mr. Biden wants.

“The Biden administration is pushing expensive fantasy jobs, and killing real ones at a time that America cannot afford to lose these jobs,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and a co-author of the Republican infrastructure proposal.

The $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, as Mr. Biden calls it, focuses heavily on physical infrastructure and federal spending meant to drive the transition to an economy that relies less on fossil fuels to combat climate change. The plan includes tax incentives to purchase low-emission vehicles, an effort to convert one-fifth of the nation’s school bus fleet to electric power, money to build 500,000 electric charging stations across the country and a wide range of other spending meant to encourage research, production and deployment of electric vehicles and their component parts.

Mr. Biden test drove the F-150 Lightning at the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

The plan is central to Mr. Biden’s pledge that the United States will cut its climate-warming emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 — an ambitious goal that would require a radical transformation of the nation’s economy, including a rapid shift by American drivers from cars and trucks powered by the internal combustion engines of the last century to zero-emission electric vehicles.

After the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era fuel-economy standards intended to reduce planet-warming auto emissions, the Biden administration also plans to propose reinstating tight new mileage and tailpipe pollution rules by midsummer.

Vehicle tailpipe pollution is a huge part of the largest source of the United States’ greenhouse gases, transportation, which contributes 29 percent of the nation’s total emissions. A new analysis by Rhodium Group, a research firm, concluded that if the administration reinstated the Obama-era fuel economy rules, combined with passage of a new law that would spend roughly $300 billion over a decade on promoting electric vehicles, it could reduce planet-warming pollution from vehicles by about 11 percent.

Experts said much of the success of Mr. Biden’s plan to cut vehicle emissions could hang on whether consumers want to buy the electric version of the Ford-150, which has for years been the top-selling automobile in America.

“The whole dimension of whether consumers will want electric trucks is unknown,” said David Victor, the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego.

“The F-150 is generally driven by guys who have a certain image of driving around in a truck — and that image includes noise, gasoline, a muscle engine. We don’t know anything about consumer uptake of eclectic trucks. We don’t know if they’ll want to drive this.”

A study published this year found that about 20 percent of people who purchased electric passenger vehicles were dissatisfied with them — in part because they worried about the lack of electric vehicle charging stations — and returned to driving traditional vehicles.

But White House officials say the pickup Mr. Biden drove on Tuesday could help tip that calculation. The F-150 “has really been a high-performing work vehicle and leisure vehicle, and now you can get it without the expense of all of that gasoline,” Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, said in an interview.

So far, only Tesla has sold electric models in high volume, but Ford typically sells about 900,000 F-Series vehicles a year. Earlier this year, Ford began selling the Mustang Mach E, a battery-powered sport-utility vehicle styled to resemble the company’s famous sports car.

“We’re not just electrifying fringe vehicles,” the company’s chairman, William C. Ford Jr., said. “The Mustang and the F-150 are the heart of what Ford is, so this is a signal about how serious we are about electrification.”

Autoworkers have expressed concerns over the electric transition, which American automakers are increasingly embracing, because the production of an electric vehicle requires about one-third less human labor than a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

But union leaders offered cautious support of the president’s cheerleading for the electric pickup.

“It is no secret that the U.S. auto industry is at a crossroads, as sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are poised to become more and more common on our roads and highways in the years ahead both at home and abroad,” said Rory L. Gamble, the president of the United Auto Workers. “Taxpayer dollars should be spent in support of U.S.-built vehicles, not imports. ”

Ford’s previous attempts to make the F-150 more eco-friendly have been successful. In 2011, the company introduced a more fuel-efficient “EcoBoost” version of the truck, which ran on six cylinders instead of eight and has generally sold well. Ford recently began selling a hybrid version of the F-150 that can get up to 25 miles per gallon. The truck has earned praise from critics and car buyers, many of whom like its ability to provide electricity for power tools and homes during blackouts.

Even if the electric model, the F-150 Lightning, accounts for only a small percentage of F-Series sales, it would most likely become one of the top-selling electric vehicles in the United States. Last year, for example, sales of the Chevrolet Bolt, made by General Motors, totaled just over 20,000 cars.

Mike Ramsey, an analyst at the research and advisory firm Gartner, said that electrifying the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. market could help accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles. “If this truck is successful, it means you can sell an electric version of any vehicle,” he said. “It could be the domino that tumbles over the rest of the market for E.V.s.”