Ford says its F-150 Lightning will disrupt the automobile business in the same way the Model T did back in 1908. Is that an idle boast? To find out, The Verge sent Nilay Patel to interview Jim Farley, CEO of Ford Motor Company. The result is a more than 10,000-word essay that everyone who wants to know more about the EV revolution in America should read. What follows is a condensed version of that story.
A Transformative Event
First, let’s give credit where credit is due. Elon Musk and Tesla started the whole “automobile as computer” idea more than a decade ago. What was considered radical then is becoming mainstream today. The massive 15.5″ touchscreen in the Lightning is proof of that. Over the air updates were novel in 2012. Today they are an essential part of any vehicle that wants to compete with the best the world has to offer. The Lightning is no exception. The thing no one at Ford expected is the massive amount of data that flows back to the manufacturer from connected cars.
“The second thing we’ve learned [after the importance of charging], the data off the vehicle is just invaluable. We are constantly shocked every day of how many quality issues we can catch and improve in an over the air update. We did our first high volume OTA for the F-150 and the Mach-E, and we solved a bunch of problems, like battery drains, that in the past would have taken a safety recall. So we’re really saving money, more than we thought, in improving quality. But it takes a lot to do that all, because the datasets off the vehicles every moment are so big. There’s such big datasets. And you need AI to analyze what’s a problem, and what’s just a signal.
“The third thing I would say is we’re now realizing how important it is to have a dedicated group — far after job one — to make that customer OTA feature set better and better and better. So we get 10 more miles every year out of the range, we get four or five marquee customer experiences like BlueCruise that we OTA. For a car company [that was] focused on, “we’ll sell you a car and we’ll see you in four years,” [that requires] being always on for the customer every day. It is a complete game-changer where we have to be software-first.”
A Watershed Moment
“You know, look, it’s a watershed moment,” Farley says. “I’ve been involved in the industry, worked for multiple brands, and I have never, ever driven a vehicle like this. We’ve been really hard at work innovating [the] 1.1 million F-series we make every year. We have a lot of scale, we can pass a lot of that benefit on to the customer, but we want to move customers to electric. We want this to be affordable and also give people a surprising product that they didn’t expect.
“We’re such a dominant commercial brand. People don’t know this about Ford, but we’re 40 percent of the commercial light duty vehicles in the US. We’re the leading brand in Europe, we are one of the leaders in China. We’re definitely a leader in the countries that I mentioned, with Ranger. Ford is the number one producer of automobiles in the US. We have more people making cars and vehicles than anyone else, even though we’re not the largest [automaker].
“I drove the latest prototype last week with Bill Ford, and I have to tell you — I’ve been involved, I’ve been a big sponsor of this project, [and] I was totally blown away. It’s faster than a Raptor, 770 foot-pounds of torque, zero to 60 in 4 seconds. The batteries are low, the center of gravity is low, it’s got a new independent rear suspension and standard four-wheel drive.
“So the whole driving experience is totally different than a full-size pickup truck. It’s fast, it’s planted, it’s quiet. It’s like, what is going on with this thing? And then you have the whole frunk, four days of power for your home, it’s a digital product as well. I think people are going to be surprised that the innovation is far beyond the batteries and the motors.”
F-150 Lightning Versus Cybertruck
The F-150 Lightning is thoroughly conventional apart from being all electric. “Are you anticipating that with the Lightning you’re going to get mostly new truck owners or are you going to convert the huge base of existing truck owners?,” Patel asked. “I think it’s going to be a mixture of both,” Farley says.
Is he concerned about competition from the Cybertruck? Give a listen.
“We did a survey recently and asked customers who were intending to buy a pickup truck: if you were going to buy an electric pickup truck, who would you buy it from? Who would you expect to do a good job to come to the market? Ford was by far the most preferred brand. Unlike sedans, where Tesla was a preferred brand. We were way above Tesla [in trucks], because of our history, and we know this customer.
“I think what’s really different at Ford, what we’re bringing to the charging network is [that] we’re focused on commercial customers with this Lightning. We’re going to have a retail one and we’re going to have a Lightning that’s focused on commercial customers. It will be white, it’ll be very basic specs, and it’s going to be for work customers.
“Work customers are totally different than electric retail. They don’t overbuy on the battery, [and] they have repeatable duty cycles. So they basically drive the same route every day, they know exactly how many miles it is, and they do depot charging. They don’t do charging on the road. If you’re a plumber, or electrician, you’ve got five vehicles, you charge at your business, and what we’re going to bring is a charging solution that’s very unique for the commercial customer.
“Now on the retail side, we put [in] a ton of technology to make the charging of these very large batteries very unique for this truck, for the retail customer. And so I will be very interested to see how we compete with others on the charging experience, because we put a lot of extra content to allow for DC fast charging, to go faster on this than what we think the competition is going to do.
“In addition, we have bi-directional charging, which is also totally new. We’ll be able to send electrons back to your house. You can sell them to the grid, and we have a special solution for retail customers who want to do that, and we put it standard in the truck. So that’s going to be a bit of a difference than Mach-E, because the charging hardware on the F-150 is different than the Mach-E.”
Farley proudly points out that Tesla is hoping to sell a few hundred thousand Cybertrucks. Ford sells nearly a million F-Series trucks a year and has been doing so for decades. Does it know truck customers and what they want? Oh, yeah. “On pickup trucks, all I’ll say is there are lots of flavors of soda, but there’s only one Coke, and there’ll be lots of electric pickup trucks; [but] there’s only one F-150.
I started writing for Gas2 — a small part of the CleanTechinca global empire — more than a decade ago. 5 years later, I was promoted to the varsity team. All told, I have written thousands of articles, many of then focused on the emerging world of electric cars. There was a huge surge of interest when the Tesla Model 3 was first announced. People around the world stood out in the rain and cold for hours to be the first to order one. It was the most talked about event in the world of automobiles since Jaguar first introduced the XK-E.
The buzz surrounding the F-150 Lightning is every bit as supercharged as the Model 3 news. The Mustang Mach-E is cool, but an all electric F-150? That could well be the best thing to happen at Ford since the Tin Lizzie. There’s excitement in the air and it is contagious. It feels like the EV revolution — at least in America — just shifted into a higher gear and is gaining speed.
Jim Farley and his minions have stolen the spotlight, at least for now. The new Hummer is a sideshow. The Lightning represents a sea change in how Ford views the future and that change will have ramifications throughout American society.