Arthur Cook loves driving a truck. Partly because he grew up around trucks in rural Kentucky, partly because he just loves the convenience and flexibility.
“Today at lunch, I was able to load up a bunch of cardboard and take it to the dump,” said Cook, a lawyer in Nashville. “I can throw the kayaks in the back, and we can go kayaking. We can take it camping.”
There is one thing he doesn’t like: the terrible gas mileage. He also can’t quite imagine giving up his truck. So, he’s decided to get an electric one.
Cook is one of about 200,000 people who have put down refundable deposits for Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning. He also has a deposit down for one of Tesla’s Cybertrucks.
“I can’t tell you today which one I will ultimately purchase,” he said, “but I know one of them is in my future.”
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Though electric cars have been growing in popularity for more than a decade, electric pickups are just now starting to come to market. The main reason it’s taken this long for one of America’s most popular vehicles to go electric is batteries.
“Because batteries have historically been very, very expensive and large, heavy vehicles like pickup trucks and utilities require huge batteries — much bigger than the small sedans that we started with,” said Bernard Swiecki, director of research at the Center for Automotive Research.
For a long time, it just wasn’t possible to build an electric pickup that would be even vaguely affordable. “We had to wait until the technology was ready, we had to wait until batteries came down enough in price,” Swiecki said.
Now, they have. And lots of big car companies are getting into the game. Tesla, Ford, GM, Toyota and Rivian all are coming out with electric pickups. But so far none of them have been able to produce trucks quickly enough — there are waitlists for almost every truck that’s been announced.
“On the supply side, it’s very clear that they were not planning for such a high demand,” said Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “They were thinking that the price of batteries would not drop that fast, and now they are struggling to meet the demand.”
Gearing up to manufacture a new kind of vehicle takes time and a whole lot of investment.
“Building electric cars requires huge changes to the supply chain, to the assembly line,” Tal said. “You need to build all-new facilities for that, they need to secure the materials, and that’s not a change that you can do in a very short timeline.”
The pandemic and supply chain issues have also slowed things down. Automakers haven’t been able to get the batteries and semiconductor chips they need to make enough of any kind of car, whether gas, hybrid or electric, so they’ve tended to focus on old standbys; cars that require fewer chips and batteries, ones they know will sell.
“Ford is talking about filling 200,000 reservations for the Lightning. They sell that many F-150s in a couple months,” said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst at Cox Automotive. “I think some of it is being careful about not over-producing.”
While it’s promising that there has been so much interest, “people raising their hands isn’t a sale,” Krebs said. “So we don’t exactly know what real demand will be.”
It’s also something of a chicken-and-egg situation: While Car companies want to know what demand is before they ramp up production, the only way to know for sure is to start putting electric pickups out there.
“Right now, I think there is a much greater risk of not moving fast enough versus moving too quickly,” said the Center for Automotive Research’s Swiecki.
“The consumer demand for these vehicles right now seems inexhaustible. In 2021, we sold nearly twice as many electrified vehicles in the United States as we did the year before. So the rates of growth are just tremendous.”
Mary Burns and her husband already have one electric car, a Volkswagen e-Golf, as well as solar panels on their house in the Bay Area.
“We’re really invested in renewable energy and all that,” Burns said.
The last thing they’re trying to convert is her husband’s pickup, which he needs for work. “His current truck is on its last legs,” she said. “And he’s actually been wanting an electric truck since before people were driving electric cars very much.”
Burns put down a deposit on the electric F-150 the day reservations opened. By getting in so early, she thought (and hoped) that she and her husband would be able to place their order last fall and pick up the truck this spring. But they still haven’t been invited to order. She’s starting to think it’s unlikely they’ll get one this year.
With their current truck on its last legs, “it’s a race between how long this truck holds out and how soon they can get it to us,” she said.
“We just don’t want to buy any more gas-powered vehicles, if we can avoid it.”