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Ford is setting the electric truck pace. But can it stay ahead of the pack?

April 27, 2022, 5:27 PM UTC

A Big Three automaker finally beat Tesla out of the garage. Whether that head start will translate into a long-term advantage remains very much in doubt.

Ford began production Tuesday on the industry’s first mass-market electric pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning, a vehicle that could further solidify Detroit’s stranglehold on the heavy-duty market. Ford aspires to reach an annualized production rate of about 150,000 Lightning units by mid-2023, on top of the roughly 1 million bestselling F-Series pickups rolling off its assembly lines each year.

At first blush, the Lightning’s specs certainly check out. The base model Lightning goes 0-to-60 mph in about four seconds, boasts similar payload and towing capacities to the 2022 Ford F-150 gas-powered base model, and has an estimated 230-mile maximum single-charge range. 

The biggest Lightning selling point: an attractive starting price of about $40,000, which quickly drops closer to $30,000 with federal and state incentives. (Higher-powered models with ranges approaching 320 miles start at $53,000, $67,500, or $90,900.)

For their part, Ford brass are framing the Lightning’s debut, slightly hyperbolically, as a “Model T moment.” The Lightning will hit the road before trucks manufactured by Tesla, General Motors, Stellantis, Toyota, and Lordstown. Upstart automaker Rivian debuted a pickup last year, though its $67,500 starting price and limited availability (it delivered 1,227 in the first quarter of 2022, per TechCrunch) make it more of a luxury product than the Lightning.

“We plan to challenge Tesla and all comers to become the top EV maker in the world,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said at a Lightning launch event Tuesday, according to CNBC. “That’s something that no one would have believed just two years ago from us. They’re going to look at this truck and believe it.”

Ford executives have reason for early optimism. Demand for the Lightning already outpaces short-term supply, with roughly 200,000 reservations on the books before the first pickup hits the road. Ford’s rollout of its first larger electric vehicle, the oddly named Mustang Mach-E SUV, has gone swimmingly in recent weeks.

But much like Michigan’s notoriously nasty roads, potholes abound.

While a small percentage of buyers are clamoring now for the Lightning, most of Ford’s loyal truck owners remain skeptical toward electric vehicles. In 2020, a company-commissioned survey of 2,000 American truck owners found only 40% of respondents were “excited about the idea of an electric pickup.” Top concerns centered on capability and functionality, the dearth of charging stations, and potential maintenance costs. 

A subsequent poll last year by CarGurus suggests truck loyalists might change their tune over time—43% of respondents said they expect to buy an electric truck in the next decade, up from 34% in 2020—but the two surveys show significant near-term hesitancy.

That pessimism could rise if the Lightning falls short of expectations. While the Mustang Mach-E has drawn mostly positive reviews, the Lightning hasn’t yet come under scrutiny from gearheads. 

Any shortcomings could be exacerbated, too, by the lack of nationwide charging infrastructure—an issue of particular importance to truck drivers hauling goods across long distances. Ford CEO Jim Farley warned about this predicament in an interview with The Verge, giving his company’s network of 13,500 public charging stations a “C-plus” grade.

“If this launch doesn’t go well, we can tarnish the entire franchise,” Ford executive chairman William C. Ford Jr. told the New York Times.

If the Lightning does stall, competitors are nipping at Ford’s tailgate. 

Tesla, the nation’s top electric vehicle manufacturer, has disappointed potential buyers and Wall Street with repeated delays on its Cybertruck, now set for release in 2023. But once the long-awaited Cybertruck hits the road, it will likely boast superior software and the invaluable Tesla imprimatur (even if this humble observer still finds the vehicle’s design hideous).

General Motors also reports that interest in the electric version of the Silverado, the U.S.’s second most popular pickup model, remains strong ahead of its planned 2023 debut. CEO Mary Barra told investors Tuesday that 140,000 Silverado EV reservations are now on the books

Ford’s EV truck certainly holds the pole position now. Its ability to keep rivals in the rearview mirror could very well depend on whether the Lightning strikes the right notes.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

A rare miss. Alphabet’s sales and profit growth slowed in the first quarter of 2022, weighed down by several macroeconomic factors that impacted digital advertising, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Google parent saw first-quarter revenue increase 23% year over year, a decline from the 41% jump in sales during 2021, as advertisers felt the impact of inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a pullback in consumer spending. Alphabet met analysts’ revenue forecasts but fell short of profit forecasts, prompting a 3% decline in the company’s share price as of midday trading Wednesday.

Bucking the downturn. Microsoft topped analysts’ fiscal third-quarter earnings and revenue expectations Tuesday, powered by strong growth in its cloud and personal computing divisions, CNBC reported. The company posted $49.4 billion in quarterly revenue, an 18% year over year increase that topped analyst forecasts of $49.1 billion. Microsoft shares jumped 7% in midday trading Wednesday, a rare surge in a tech industry grappling with a broad selloff and largely underwhelming earnings reports.

Bigger problems than Joe. Spotify shares tumbled 11% in midday trading Wednesday as Wall Street fretted over the audio streamer’s stagnant margins and underwhelming second-quarter forecast, Bloomberg reported. The streaming giant posted solid first-quarter revenue and subscriber totals, alleviating any investor concerns about a significant boycott of the service tied to star podcaster Joe Rogan’s past use of racial slurs and broadcast of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Spotify officials projected flat margins and a subscriber count of 187 million by the end of the second quarter, below analyst estimates of 189.4 million.

Better not back out. Elon Musk and Twitter agreed to a potential $1 billion termination fee as part of the Tesla CEO’s agreement this week to acquire the social media company for $44 billion, TechCrunch reported Tuesday. If either party scuttles the deal, the responsible side would owe the other party $1 billion under terms of the agreement, according to an SEC filing. The provision offers protection against Musk failing to definitively secure funding for the purchase or Twitter reneging on the deal after receiving a better offer.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

D.C. can’t save you. Opponents of Elon Musk’s planned Twitter acquisition quickly turned their attention to Washington this week, arguing that the federal government should somehow block another billionaire from taking over another social media outlet. But ardent anti-Musk advocates will be sorely disappointed, the Washington Post reported. That’s because the deal presents no clear antitrust issues that would preclude the takeover, and current U.S. laws will allow Musk to carry out his promise of less-strict content moderation. While Democrats and President Joe Biden have pledged to crack down on Silicon Valley excesses, they haven’t significantly altered the applicable legal and regulatory frameworks while in power.

From the article:

The party’s ambitions have collided with the realities of governing in a deeply polarized Washington. Lawmakers in the United States are more constrained than their European peers in regulating social media, because of First Amendment protections that limit government regulation of speech. 

Tech regulation has also taken a back seat to pressing policy dilemmas as the pandemic stretched into its third year, inflation rose, and war broke out in Europe.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

After Alphabet’s earnings miss, Meta “needs new ideas” to stave off TikTok threat, by Chloe Taylor

Twitter cofounder Evan Williams on Elon Musk: “People project either their hopes and dreams or their worst nightmares,” by Jonathan Vanian

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong says Elon Musk’s Twitter buy is “a great win for free speech,” by Taylor Locke

Dogecoin falls hard after short-lived Elon Musk buy pump, by Taylor Locke

Twitter says thousands of users really are closing—and opening—accounts on the Musk buyout news, by Chloe Taylor

Jack Dorsey says Elon Musk is the only person fit to lead Twitter. Here are four possible reasons why, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Here’s one way to deal with the A.I. talent shortage, by Jonathan Vanian

BEFORE YOU GO

Will there be a welcome party? Silicon Valley’s tech giants are about to get some nosy neighbors. Politico EU reported Tuesday that the European Union, fresh off securing two major agreements on tougher tech company regulations, plans to open a San Francisco office. While EU officials didn’t say the move is directly tied to the imminent passage of the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, the timing appears anything but coincidental. The new rules will force large tech companies to remove more content from their sites, disclose more information about their content moderation practices and internal algorithms, and open up their platforms to more competitors. Skeptics have questioned whether EU officials can meaningfully enforce the pending laws. If EU regulators can’t, nobody can blame proximity to Silicon Valley.

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