San Antonio – Ford created its electric vehicle program in late 2017. It’s no coincidence that the date coincided with the first deliveries of the Tesla Model 3.
The Silicon Valley startup has changed the electric game with its $40,000, 220-mile range electric sedan. Less than two years after CEO Elon Musk first introduced it in April 2016 to an unprecedented pre-order of more than 200,000 orders, the Model 3 has taken the lead in a clean energy portfolio that includes home battery energy storage and solar roof tiles.
Ford realized it needed to change its game to compete.
The result was Team Edison, a start-up car company within Ford to imitate Tesla. Just over four years later and with 200,000 pre-orders, the Ford F-150 Lightning EV truck spearheads a new business model for Ford Motor Co. offering electric vehicles as well as battery-powered solutions for the home, unlike startup Elon Musk.
“Our competitor is Tesla,” Ford vice president of global electric vehicles Darren Palmer said in an interview in San Antonio at a media test for Lighting. “We see our brand as an electric car company and an electric power company.”
The Lightning is the result of a comprehensive process of reimagining the pickup truck as a versatile vehicle and mobile generator in a dynamic energy region.
“We worked as a startup because we were competing against startups,” Palmer said. “You could see that electric vehicles really came of age. We didn’t know what customers wanted, so the first thing we did was go out and see customers in California, Norway, China and Europe. Customers really opened our eyes to what we needed (and how) to take advantage of the new technology. To do new things that customers have never seen before.”
New things like a front-end truck – a “frunk” – can carry two golf bags for a day on the Texas links. Or give three days to power a home during a California blackout.
Lightning debuted as one of its major markets, California, faces a power shortage this summer as the state halts primary load generation in its transition to green energy sources. “Officials expect a potential shortfall of 1,700-5,000 megawatts,” Reuters reported during a Lightning media release. “Supply gaps like this could leave between 1 million and 4 million people without electricity.”
Ford product experts took this opportunity to promote Lightning’s unique capabilities to serve as an electric generator for approximately US$10,000 as a permanent natural gas generator.
“Lightning can be used as a long-term battery to power your home for three to 10 days,” said Ryan O’Gorman, Ford’s director of energy services business. Show a home setup that connects the truck to the Ford Charge Station Pro wall charger and the home integration system—which consists of a battery, power inverter, and two-way electrical flow—starts up immediately if the network goes dark.
He also promoted cloud-based software that charges Lightning during low-cost peak hours — and then brings that cheap electricity home during high-cost evening rush hours. California officials expect annual electricity rate increases of 4-9% by 2025 as the state shuts down natural gas and nuclear plants and delays planned solar farms. Texas, the largest market for Ford trucks, also suffered widespread blackouts last year.
Tesla’s Powerwall pioneered a home energy storage solution in 2015 – storing energy from rooftop solar panels to power homes during peak hours. Ford is taking this idea a step further by integrating its truck into the system.
Ford’s Palmer credits the Edison team’s human-centered design focus for the company’s new direction.
“We were struggling to ride electric cars the right way,” he said. “We are a 100-plus-year-old company, and as projects progressed, they were removed because they did not achieve profit targets. You use the principle of human-centred design when it is not clear what the future path is, when there is disruption.”
By hiring employees diverse in age and product backgrounds, Team Edison began asking customers what they wanted from EVs. They have scoured the globe to meet clients. They focused on reimagining company icons with the development of the F-150 Lightning, Mustang Mach-E and E-Transit truck.
For the F-150, they went to Texas, where Ford 1-in-5 pickup trucks are sold.
“(The F-150) has been the best-selling car of any kind in America for decades. It can change people’s relationship to electric vehicles if we get it right. But we didn’t know who wanted to buy this car,” Palmer said. “So we made cardboard prototypes.” We made some brochures and went to Texas.”
Accompanied by a human-centered design specialist — “essentially a psychologist,” Palmer said — Edison’s team encountered a group of seasoned truck drivers in Texas. The team caught the attention of truckers with muscle-restricted specs — 560 horsepower, 775 foot-pounds of torque and 10,000 pound-feet — that embarrassed a gas-powered Raptor performance truck.
“Then we showed them the box and what it could be,” Palmer said.
Armed with customer demand, Team Edison built an all-new truck but that stayed true to what made the F-150 an essential tool for generations of truck buyers.
The back of the A-pillar (and the rear cover) are the aluminum body panels familiar to the F-150. the bed? “Deliberately mismatched, because customers said their accessories had to be a fit and they required a payload of more than 2,000 pounds,” the Ford EV chief said.
Lower decks, the F-150’s body sits on a familiar ladder-type chassis, but with all-new wheels, gearbox, motors, battery, steering and brakes.
“It’s built to do what customers need…starting at $39.974,” Palmer said. “We wanted to remove all excuses for electric. It’s a truck for everyone. (We) ship luxury fleet models and fleet models together.”
Henry Payne is an auto critic for the Detroit News. You can find him at hpaynedetroitnews.com or Twitter HenryEPayne.