San Antonio — Ford birthed its electric vehicle program in late 2017. It’s no coincidence the date dovetailed with first deliveries of the Tesla Model 3.
The Silicon Valley startup had changed the electric game with its $40,000, 220-mile range electric sedan. Delivered less than two years since it was first introduced by CEO Elon Musk in April 2016 to an unprecedented 200,000-plus pre-orders, the Model 3 headlined a clean-energy portfolio that included home-battery energy storage and solar roof tiles.
Ford realized that it needed to change its own game to compete.
The result was Team Edison, a startup auto company within Ford to mimic Tesla. A little over four years later and with 200,000 pre-orders, Ford’s F-150 Lightning EV pickup truck headlines a new Ford Motor Co. business model offering electric vehicles as well as battery-powered energy solutions for the home, not unlike Elon Musk’s startup.
“Our competitor is Tesla,” Ford Vice President for global EVs Darren Palmer in an interview in San Antonio at the Lighting’s media test. “We see our brand to be an electric-vehicles and an electric-energy company.”
The Lightning is the result of a comprehensive process to re-imagine the pickup as a utility vehicle and a mobile generator in a fraught energy landscape.
“We worked like a startup because we were competing against startups,” said Palmer. “You could see EVs were really coming 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, Europe. Customers really opened our eyes to what we needed (and how) to make use of the new technology to do new things that customers had never seen before.”
New things like a front truck – “frunk” – that can hold two golf bags for a day on the Texas links. Or offer three days of generating power for the home during a California blackout.
The Lightning debuts at a time when one of its key markets, California, is facing energy shortages this summer as the state shuts down baseload generation in its transition to green energy sources. “Officials forecast a potential shortfall of 1,700-5,000 megawatts,” reported Reuters during the Lightning’s media rollout. “Supply gaps along those lines could leave between 1 million and 4 million people without power.”
Ford product experts used the opportunity to tout Lightning’s unique abilities to operate as an electric generator for about the same $10,000 price as a permanent, natural-gas generator.
“The Lightning can be used as an extended-range battery to power your home for three to 10 days,” said Ford Energy Services Business Manager Ryan O’Gorman. He demonstrated a home setup connecting the truck to a Ford Charge Station Pro wall charger and Home Integration System – consisting of a battery, power inverter and bi-directional electricity flow – that immediately kicks in if the grid goes dark.
He also touted cloud-based software that charges the Lightning during low-cost, off-peak hours – then transfers that cheap electricity back to the house during peak, high-cost evening hours. California officials predict annual electricity rate increases of 4-9% by 2025 as the state shutters natural gas and nuclear plants and planned solar farms are delayed. Texas, Ford’s biggest truck market, also suffered widespread power outages last year.
Tesla’s Powerwall pioneered the home-energy storage solution in 2015 – storing energy from roof solar panels to power homes during peak hours. Ford takes the idea a step further by integrating its truck in the system.
Ford’s Palmer credits Team Edison’s human-centric design focus for the company’s new direction.
“We were struggling to get going in electric vehicles in the right way,” he said. “We are an over 100-year old company, and as projects came forward they were being removed because they weren’t meeting profit targets. You use the principle of human-centric design when it’s not obvious what the future path is, when there is disruption.”
Employing a diverse staff in age and product backgrounds, Team Edison hit the road to ask customers what they wanted from EVs. They trotted the globe to meet customers. They focused on re-imagining company icons by developing the electric F-150 Lightning, Mustang Mach-E and E-Transit van.
For the F-150, they went to Texas, where 1-in-5 Ford pickups are sold.
“(F-150’s) the best-selling vehicle of any kind in America for decades. It could change people’s relationship w EVs if we get it right. But we didn’t know who wanted to buy this vehicle,” said Palmer. “So we made prototypes out of cardboard, we made up some brochures and we went to Texas.”
Accompanied by a human-centric design specialist – “essentially a psychologist,” said Palmer – Team Edison confronted a group of hardened Texas truck drivers. The team got the truckers’ attention with muscle-bound specs – 560 horsepower, 775 foot-pounds of torque, 10,000-pound towing – that embarrassed a gas-powered Raptor performance truck.
“Then we showed them the frunk and what the frunk could be,” said Palmer.
He recounted the story of one particularly prominent focus-group pickup owner who perked up when learning he could carry two bags of golf clubs in the frunk while also using the pickup bed for work.
“He stood up and said ‘I’m not leaving until I can put down a deposit.’ We estimated 18% wanted an e-pickup truck. Then we went to California and, you can imagine, we couldn’t get out of the room,” said Palmer.
Armed with customer demand, Team Edison constructed an all-new truck but that stayed true to what had made F-150 an essential tool to generations of truck buyers.
Aft of the A-pillar (and frunk) were F-150’s familiar aluminum body panels. The bed? “Deliberately identical, because customers said their accessories needed to fit and they needed over 2,000 pounds of payload,” said Ford’s EV boss.
Below decks the F-150 body sits on familiar, ladder-frame chassis construction, yet with all-new wheels, gearbox, motors, battery, steering and brakes.
“It was designed to do what customers need … starting at $39,974,” said Palmer. “We wanted to take all the excuses away for electric. It’s a truck for everybody. (We are) shipping luxury and fleet models all together.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected] or Twitter @HenryEPayne.