How Ford’s once-in-demand F-150 Lightning lost its luster

How Ford’s once-in-demand F-150 Lightning lost its luster

In July, Michael Puglia returned home with what seemed like the coolest vehicle he’d ever owned: a Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck.

It was big enough to carry his kids and all their hockey equipment. He would never need to refuel and the ride was exhilarating. “It’s incredibly fast and responsive,” said Mr. Puglia, a pediatric anesthesiologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The technology is incredible.”

But as the weather got colder, the truck’s range — or the distance it could travel before needing to be plugged in — decreased significantly. One day, after Mr. Puglia walked 35 miles to an ice rink, his range decreased by 73 miles. Another time, a 60-mile jaunt reduced its range by 110 miles.

Multiple visits to the dealership for software updates didn’t resolve the problem, leaving Mr. Puglia wondering whether he should keep the $79,000 truck.

“People talk about ‘range anxiety’ – it’s like it’s the driver’s fault,” he said. “But it’s not our fault. In fact, they don’t tell us what the actual scope is. The truck says it has 300 miles on it. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.”

Mr. Puglia’s short shift from enthusiasm to frustration reflects the recent ups and downs of the electric vehicle sector. Twelve months ago, sales of battery-powered cars seemed poised for a sustained takeoff in the United States. Sales increased 46% last year, surpassing more than 1 million vehicles for the first time and accounting for more than 7% of all new light vehicles sold in 2023.

But in the final three months of 2023, the pace of sales slowed and automakers’ optimism turned to caution. During the last three months of the year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association, registrations of new electric vehicles decreased compared to the previous three months in California, the largest market for battery-powered cars and trucks.

Ford Motor, General Motors and others are now slowing their investments in electric vehicles. GM is also delaying sales of some new electric models and considering producing plug-in hybrids, which dealers say are attracting more customer interest.

“You had a wave of early adopters, but the mainstream consumer just isn’t jumping for electric vehicles,” said Marc Cannon, an independent consultant who until recently was director of customer experience at AutoNation, the largest automobile retailer in the country. “Manufacturers offer products, but the consumer says, ‘We’re not involved.’

More than almost any other new battery-powered vehicle, the F-150 Lightning appeared to be a big hit when it was introduced in 2022. It was the electric incarnation of the nation’s best-selling vehicle and could accelerate like a car. sport. Ford at one point had 200,000 reservations for the truck. Initially, the company struggled to produce more than a few thousand per month, which limited sales. Then, last year, consumer enthusiasm gave way to a more cautious assessment.

Demand for the Lightning has slowed and the backlog of reservations has all but disappeared. In 2023, Ford sold 24,000 Lightnings, a 54% increase from the previous year, but well short of the annual production of 150,000 the company once targeted.

Marin Gjaja, chief operating officer of Ford’s electric vehicle division, said sales of the Lightning, while lower than initial expectations, are strong. In the fourth quarter, it was one of the best-selling electric vehicles after Tesla’s Model Y and Model 3.

And in states with high numbers of electric vehicles, like California, Oregon and Washington, the Lightning accounts for about 30 percent of sales of the company’s F-Series trucks. “We continue to view Lightning as a success and a critical part of our portfolio,” Mr. Gjaja said.

Late last year, Ford announced it would roughly halve the number of F-150 Lightnings produced in 2024, to about 1,600 per week. The company also shifted some 1,400 workers who made Lightnings to other models, including the gasoline-powered F-150. In January, Ford sold 2,258 Lightnings, six fewer than the same month last year.

It’s not just Ford. Pickup trucks are a particularly disappointing segment of the electric vehicle market. Rivian sold about 17,700 of its R1T pickup last year, the same as in 2022, according to Cox Automotive. Tesla and GM introduced electric pickup trucks last year – the Cybertruck and a Chevrolet Silverado – but have produced and sold very few of them so far.

A big part of the problem, owners and analysts say, is that despite their fantastic technology and acceleration, electric pickup trucks suffer from significantly reduced range when drivers use them for the kinds of things people buy trucks for : carrying heavy objects, towing trailers and driving. in bad weather.

The distance an electric vehicle can travel on one charge can vary greatly. Edmunds, the market researcher, tested a Lightning in 81-degree weather and drove the truck 341 miles on a full battery. But cold temperatures can reduce the range of all electric vehicles. During a recent frigid spell in the Midwest, some owners of Tesla and other brands saw their range cut in half or more. Owners who don’t have a charger at home suffer more because they can’t preheat their car while it’s plugged in before leaving. Rain, slopes, aggressive driving and heavy loads can also reduce range.

Mr Gjaja said some drivers may not yet be aware of all the steps they can take to maximize the truck’s range. Programming the truck to warm up its battery on cold mornings can reduce range loss. And using the “one pedal” driving mode allows energy to be recovered when the vehicle brakes.

Driving 65 miles per hour will use less energy than driving 70 or 80 mph, reducing the need for a charging stop, he said. “Going slower can get you faster.”

Ford recently began equipping Lightnings with energy-efficient heat pumps that can help extend the range.

Tesla, which makes about half of all electric vehicles sold in the United States, was sold out last summer by three Californians who claimed their cars didn’t achieve the range the automaker claimed. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, was based in part on a Reuters report that said the range figures on Tesla’s dashboard screens did not take into account weather conditions and other important factors. Reuters also reported that the company had created a team of employees to deflect customer complaints.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Even when cold isn’t an issue, range can be an issue, especially for large vans used for work.

Mike Kochav, owner of a construction company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, purchased a Lightning in the summer of 2022 for around $90,000. His company already owned six gasoline-powered F-150s. He loved the ride and the technology of the electric truck, but found that its range quickly diminished as the pickup hauled equipment to job sites across the state.

“As soon as you put a trailer on it, the mileage goes down,” Mr. Kochav said. Because he sometimes travels 200 to 300 miles a day, he had to stop to recharge, which often took 45 minutes, or longer if he had to wait for a charger to become available.

“There were too many delays in my day,” Mr. Kochav said. I traded his Lightning last summer.

Public chargers for electric vehicles are available at about 61,000 stations across the country, according to the Department of Energy; For comparison, there are 145,000 gas stations.

Electric vehicles also tend to have more problems than hybrid or gasoline models, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. This may be because manufacturers are still learning how to build reliable battery-powered vehicles. GM recently had to tell dealers to stop selling the electric Chevrolet Blazer, a new model, while it fixes software issues that may prevent some of the sport utility vehicle’s features from working.

Electric vehicles are also more expensive than comparable hybrid and gasoline models, even after several rounds of price cuts last year. Federal and state tax breaks for some electric cars and trucks help but don’t always close the gap.

Still, the industry is moving forward. Analysts estimate 1.5 million electric vehicles will be sold this year, up from nearly 1.2 million in 2023. The Biden administration is expected to finalize new emissions rules next month. His proposal would in effect require battery-powered cars to account for two-thirds of all light-duty vehicle sales by 2032, although details could change before the regulations become official.

Perhaps Ford and other manufacturers can look forward to consumers like Mr. Kochav. Despite his frustrations, he said he’s willing to give the Lightning another try in a few years, especially if Ford improves the truck’s range and charging stations become more common.

“I really loved it,” he said. “I really think I’ll come back to it one day.”

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David B.Otero

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