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Electric pickup trucks are coming, but the road ahead could be rocky


(NEW YORK) – With all the splashy commercials, prestigious awards, and glitzy launch parties, you could be forgiven for thinking the electric car craze is actually an electric truck craze.

The R1T, an electric pickup from a startup called Rivian, claimed top honors at Motor Trend’s annual Truck of the Year competition for 2022. The support vehicles for Jeff Bezos’ trip to space last year were also Rivians. Ford claims around 200,000 people have already reserved its upcoming electric truck, the F-150 Lightning. Last year, NBA star Lebron James became one of the first people outside of General Motors to check out the GMC Hummer EV, a 1,000 horsepower rig that the company is calling a “supertruck.” And it was just a few years ago when Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Blade Runner-inspired “Cybertruck” to much fanfare at an event in Los Angeles. 
Last week at CES, General Motors CEO Mary Barra introduced the Chevrolet Silverado EV, which the company claims can go up to 400 miles on a single charge when equipped with the larger available battery. Scot Hoskisson, lead program manager for electric pickup trucks at GM, says they’re targeting some truck-like performance numbers too. 

“Our goal towards mass adoption of EVs isn’t simply to create an electric truck,” says Hoskisson. “It’s that we wanted to create a truck that has all of the capability and more of today’s pickup trucks that just happens to be a zero emissions electric [vehicle].”

The company says the Silverado EV will be available with 664 horsepower and 780 lb-ft of torque in the top-spec “RST” trim. That model, as well as it’s corporate cousin, the GMC Hummer EV, is set to retail in excess of $100,000. GM also showed off a base “work truck” trim for the Silverado, which the company says will start under $40,000. Hoskisson believes the market will respond to the new truck, even if it shares almost nothing in common with the existing, gas-powered Silverado.

“We believe that the Silverado EV is a re-imagined full-size electric pickup truck. And because of that, we believe it has some compelling advantages in the marketplace.”

GM says it’s investing thirty five billion dollars into electric vehicles by 2025, with plans to sell nothing but EVs by 2035. A big part of that is going to be the company’s new specially designed electric platform, that it’s calling “Ultium.”

“A ground-up EV has a lot of advantages over a regular gasoline-converted vehicle,” says Chad Kirchner, Editor In Chief of EV Pulse. “A ground-up EV means that Chevrolet and General Motors can put the batteries as structural elements in the floor.”

In the past, automakers would commonly adapt existing vehicle platforms to accommodate electric powertrains. But there were tradeoffs to that approach: batteries often ate into luggage space, and electric range could be paltry. Kirchner says when you design a car to accommodate batteries from the start, “it’s just easier to package.”

Packaging is a big deal for the pickup truck market, in particular. Traditional pickups lack trunks, which means owners miss out on valuable lockable storage space. EV trucks don’t have engines, which frees up the front of the vehicle for a front-trunk, or “frunk.” 

The Silverado EV makes use of the extra space with what its calling an “eTrunk.” Same goes for the F-150 Lightning, though Ford calls its version a “Mega Power Frunk.”

The Rivian R1T gets plenty of frunk space too, plus, because there’s no transmission to take up space under the floor, the Rivian gets what the company calls a “gear tunnel.” Essentially, it’s a tube-shaped storage compartment that slots in between the back seats and the bed of the truck. Rivian will even sell you a portable kitchen that runs off the truck’s battery, complete with an electric stove – and even a kitchen sink.

There’s another reason so many automakers are committing to electric trucks: Americans love pickups. Ford sold over 700,000 F-series trucks in 2021, making it the best selling vehicle in the country for the 44th year in a row. Ram and Chevy were right behind it, both selling more than half a million pickups last year. In fact, a traditional sedan doesn’t even crack the list of the top five best selling vehicles in the country. Kirchner says there’s a good reason for that.

“Truck makers long ago learned that they can make a lot more money offering a family car experience with a bed, which is what a modern pickup truck ultimately is,” he says. “Why have two cars in the driveway when you can have one that does everything?”

Rivian was the first of this new wave of EV trucks to start making deliveries earlier this winter, but others are close behind. Ford announced last week that it’s doubling production of its electric F150 “Lightning” to meet demand. As for that Hummer EV?

“They only sold one, but there was one Hummer EV sale in Q4 of 2021,” says Kirchner, joking that “it’s probably [GM CEO] Mary Barra’s personal car, but they shipped one.”

The energy around electric trucks comes at a crucial moment for the auto industry. Back in 2020 California governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring all new cars sold in the state to be zero emission by 2035. The European Union is working on similar legislation.

“You’re going to start seeing these trucks, like, soon,” says Kirchner.

But it’s not exactly a smooth road ahead. A global semiconductor shortage has delayed production across the auto industry, especially at General Motors. The Indiana factory that makes the gasoline Silverado halted production multiple times last year on account of the chip shortage, and sales ended up dropping thirteen percent. The electric Silverado isn’t set to hit dealers until 2023 – more than a year after Ford’s targeted date. 

Plus, reliable public charging infrastructure is still being built out, which means that EV owners have limited options when it comes to charging on long journeys. A notable exception is Tesla. The company operates thousands of “Supercharger” stations around the world, which only work with Tesla vehicles. But Tesla has a different problem. The Cybertruck was originally planned to go into production in late 2021. But last year, after several delays attributed to the pandemic, the truck’s production date, along with some other key information like the price, quietly vanished off Tesla’s website.

“Will we see Cybertruck in 2022? I don’t know. Maybe,” says Kirchner, adding: “maybe aliens will invade.”

Hear ABC News Radio’s Mike Dobuski report on the EV truck market:

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