Time to panic-buy an electric pickup truck?

Source: By MICHAEL GRUNWALD, Politico • Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2021

With help from Renuka Rayasam and Myah Ward

RUNNING ON EMPTY — Electric vehicles are the automotive vanguard of a greener world, and they’ve never generated more buzz.

Tesla is now the world’s most valuable car company, worth more than its top four competitors combined. Its CEO, Elon Musk, now the world’s richest man, just hosted Saturday Night Live.

General Motors has pledged to go all-electric by 2035, Volkswagen by 2027 and Jaguar by 2025. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for $174 billion in electric vehicle investments. When the Colonial pipeline hack created a gas shortage this week, his energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, slyly noted that it wouldn’t affect EV owners.

But here’s a less trendy factoid: In 2020, while Americans bought nearly 300,000 electric vehicles, they also boughtnearly 800,000 Ford F-150 pickup trucks. The F-150 may be a gas-guzzling disaster for the climate, but it’s been the nation’s best-selling vehicle for 44 straight years.

This is why Ford’s decision to roll out an electric version of the F-150 is such a big deal, and why, on Tuesday, Biden will visit the Michigan factory that will manufacture it. Americans aren’t going to stop buying big trucks to help Biden meet his aggressive greenhouse-gas goals. So if those goals are going to be met, big trucks will have to stop emitting greenhouse gases.

The question is whether the kind of consumers who crave two-ton Ford Tough behemoths forged from military-grade steel will buy the climate-friendly plug-in version, because they’re not usually the kind of consumers who worry about their carbon footprints.

Like solar panels, plant-based meat and climate action in general, electric vehicles have become identified with the progressive/Democratic/metropolitan team in America’s political cultural wars, the team of NPR and hip-hop and sushi. Unless electric vehicles can start to appeal to the conservative/Republican/rural team of Fox News and country music and Chik-Fil-A, they’ll never reach the critical mass needed to slash transportation emissions and stop global warming.

It was interesting that Ford’s teaser video for the all-electric F-150 Lightningfeatured a Black woman talking about innovation and ingenuity rather than Denis Leary rasping about toughness and power. Republicans used to dismiss EVs as impractical Obama-mobiles for eco-hippies, and President Donald Trump mocked GM for its all-electric ambitions: “Darling, where do I get a charge?”

But Chris Nelder, a carbon-free transportation expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute, believes the Lightning can help expand the appeal of plug-ins to consumers who probably won’t be charging at Starbucks. “The mere existence of the electric F-150 will send a powerful signal to the entire truck-driving segment of the market,” Nelder said.

The problem for the climate is the truck-driving segment is extremely large, while the EV segment is still less than 2 percent of U.S. sales.Americans currently buy three times as many pickups, SUVs and crossovers as passenger cars, which is why U.S. transportation emissions have remained relatively flat even though passenger cars have gotten much more fuel-efficient. We love our rugged-sounding Yukons and Dakotas and Navigators and Expeditions, even if many of us just navigate them on expeditions to the mall, and there haven’t been many all-electric alternatives.

That is starting to change, though, with Audi and Volkswagen debuting electric SUVs to compete with the Tesla X and Hyundai selling an electric crossover to compete with the Tesla Y, while Rivian and Nio prepare to enter the global market as well. The F-150 may be the industry’s most important test, because it’s America’s most popular vehicle.

So the Lightning better be good. Tesla made a splash not by appealing to the environmental consciences of the global community, but by making awesome cars. Electric vehicles are still a bit more expensive up-front than their fossil-fueled counterparts, but their minimal maintenance and fuel costs make them less expensive over their lifetimes. Their battery ranges are also getting longer every year, and Biden wants to invest $15 billion in charging stations that will help reduce the Darling-where-do-I-get-a-charge problem.

Most truck buyers probably aren’t looking for a climate-friendly truck or even a truck of the future. They just want a good truck. But even if the Lightning turns out to be an awesome truck, it won’t sell in parts of red America if it’s seen as a Bidenmobile. If electric trucks are going to get traction beyond early adopters, they can’t be viewed as cosmopolitan cultural totems, like organic kale, Lululemon yoga pants or Whole Foods reusable bags.

The president’s visit to Detroit will be a nice milestone for an electric-vehicle industry that didn’t exist when he became vice president 12 years ago. But it might be best for the climate if America’s truck buyers never hear a word about it.