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All The Oomph, Minus The Vroom? Electric Pickups Take Aim At American Market

Automakers are racing to be the first to bring an electric pickup to market — including, clockwise from top left, Rivian's sporty offering, Tesla's futuristic Cybertruck, General Motors' Hummer EV and Lordstown's work-focused Endurance.
Courtesy of Rivian, Tesla, Lordstown Motors and General Motors
Automakers are racing to be the first to bring an electric pickup to market — including, clockwise from top left, Rivian's sporty offering, Tesla's futuristic Cybertruck, General Motors' Hummer EV and Lordstown's work-focused Endurance.

Faster, stronger, just plain truckier.

Automakers from GM to startup Rivian are racing to bring their first electric pickups ever to market starting next year, and they aren't just arguing a battery-powered truck will be as good as any other pickup.

They are promising it'll be better. Much better.

Take Ford. Its upcoming electric F-150 can tow a million-pound freight train (although it should be noted freight trains are designed to be easy to pull). Or take the Tesla Cybertruck, which apparently can win a game of tug-of-war with an ordinary F-150.

And then, there are the tricks: an electric pickup from Rivian doing a "tank turn," or a Hummer EV whose wheels can turn and drive diagonally.

Automakers have a lot riding on ensuring the take-off of the electric pickup truck.

Currently, the best-selling vehicle in the United States is a pickup. The second best-selling vehicle is also a pickup. And the third best-selling vehicle? You guessed it: It's a pickup.

That means even a small slice of this market could mean big money.

"A third of all pickup truck owners are open to the idea of electrification," says Alexander Edwards, the president of market research firm Strategic Vision. "It doesn't mean that they're going to shop for it, doesn't mean they're going to go buy it, but they're least willing to listen to what you have to say."

Edwards calculates that all told, some 2 million shoppers per year might entertain the idea of an electric pickup — and that's before the first model has even hit the market.

Compared to the pool of car shoppers who are already buying battery-powered cars, these potential pickup buyers are less wealthy, less liberal and less motivated by environmental concerns.

But they could be persuaded by arguments about performance, Edwards says, citing the results of his firm's ongoing surveys of new car buyers.

Across the board, performance and handling are top priorities for many new vehicle buyers, Edwards says, while only 7% of shoppers say they'd be willing to pay significantly more for the sake of the environment.

And pickup buyers in particular are looking for "rugged, powerful, capable vehicles," he says.

For instance, they often prefer engines that can provide a lot of low-end torque — the rotational force needed to get a heavy weight moving from a dead stop.

Electric motors are remarkably good at delivering that exact kind of power. For some buyers, that could be persuasive.

Electric vehicles have steering and handling advantages, too — hence the tank turns and crab walks of the promotional videos. And the massive weight of an electric vehicle is a boon for drivers hungry for traction.

Automakers say they've seen evidence of robust American appetite for electric pickups. Ford recently announced it was increasing its initial production of the all-electric F-150 by 50%, citing "strong early interest."

And the Tesla Cybertruck has clocked hundreds of thousands of reservations. In fact, a recent CarGurus study of current pickup owners found that 25% said they would consider switching brands to buy a Tesla truck — beating out every other brand.

But there are challenges. How to charge their cars, whether at home or on the road, is a key concern for shoppers.

Affordability is another serious issue, especially given that interest in electric vehicles at the moment is particularly strong among younger drivers, who are less likely to be able to afford pricier vehicles.

"It's really Gen-Z and millennials who are driving increased interest in electric pickups," says Madison Gross, the director of consumer insights at CarGurus.

New pickup trucks are expensive to start with — averaging nearly $55,000 for a full-size truck — and most electric versions will be even more expensive up front.

That's giving pause to current pickup owners like Pat Turner.

The 30-year-old has been waiting for electric pickups to come to market for years, and he's "stoked" by the performance specs of the vehicles in the pipeline. The prices, though, are a different matter.

"For this foreseeable future, anyway, they seem kind of unobtainable," he says. "Prices are just insane. I mean, GM came out with their EV Hummer: Over $100,000. That's nuts!"

So Turner will be keeping an eye on electric pickups. But he probably won't be buying one anytime soon.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.