When Ford launched its first electric vehicle a quarter century ago, the Ranger EV pickup to comply with California’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate of the 1990s, battery-powered trucks were a curious science project. (It sold just 1,400 the Ranger EV’s five-year run.) Twenty years later, the maker of the top-selling U.S. pickup has much bigger plans for its electric 2023 F-150 Lightning, which Ford hopes will help maintain its truck dominance and hold off new competitors including Elon Musk’s cartoonish Tesla Cybertruck.
Ford made it known for a few years that it planned to build an electric F-150, but aside from the 2020 video showing a prototype towing a 1 million pound train, few details were available. That started to change this week with President Joe Biden’s visit to Ford’s electric vehicle plant in Dearborn, Michigan, on May 18. “This sucker’s quick,” he said, during a brief test drive in a camouflaged model with Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford.
One thing that was clear prior to its unveiling is that an electric F-150 would be a truck-shaped pickup targeted at customers that actually use them. As the number one purveyor of trucks in America for more than 40 years, Dearborn wasn’t about to squander its customer goodwill on a giant steel doorstop.
MORE FOR YOU
Beginning in fall 2021, a very competitive market of electric pickup trucks will be emerging over the next several years. The Rivian R1T, GMC Hummer EV, Chevrolet Silverado EV, Bollinger B2, Lordstown Endurance, Canoo pickup and Tesla Cybertruck are slated to try to grab a slice of Ford’s F-series profits and they probably won’t be the only new entries.
When Ford launched the e-Transit van last November, there was some concern that the F-150 might follow a similar path with a relatively short range of just 127 miles. Ford explained at the time that they had studied the usage pattern of Transit owners who are primarily commercial customers and found that most of the vans accumulate less than 75 miles per day. The logic makes sense for the Transit. But Ford has long been saying that they saw commercial customers as a prime market for the F-150 as well (at least half of big truck sales fall into this category). While many of those customers would probably be fine with a shorter range, Ford would likely cede almost all consumers to the competition.
So what exactly has Ford built?
It turns out that the F-150 Lightning is a very different beast from the E-Transit. While Lightning will be easily recognizable by anyone that has seen a modern F-150, this is far more than just a quickie conversion job on an internal combustion vehicle like that Ranger was so many years ago.
A full-size pickup truck starts from its foundation, the frame. Whenever a maker of these machines launches a new model, they always talk about how they have made the frame stronger and tougher with more high-strength steel and all sorts of other buzzwords. While the Lightning retains the basic dimensions of a 2021 F-150 crew cab with 5.5-inch bed, the frame is said to be all new and exclusive to the electric truck.
Contrary to some speculation, Ford has not incorporated any technology from Rivian into this truck. It has been designed completely in-house. Since trucks are already body-on-frame designs, they have sort of always been skateboard chassis, but the Lightning chassis goes even further in that direction. At the front corners, the Lightning retains the same upper and lower control arm suspension layout. But in place of the internal combustion engine is an electric motor with a single speed transaxle in a cast aluminum sub-frame.
At the rear end, the traditional leaf spring and live axle has been discarded. In its place there is another electric motor along with a coil-sprung semi-trailing arm suspension layout. The only other F-150 with rear coil springs is the new 2021 Raptor but that still uses a live axle with a five-link layout. The rear motor is identical to the front unit, but the transaxle adds an electronic locking mechanism to the differential to provide extra traction in off—road use.
Unlike Lordstown, Ford has opted to keep the motors in-board rather than using hub motors, explaining that its configuration is more durable and offers better ride quality and braking due to the reduced unsprung mass.
In between the motors and frame rails, Ford has filled available space with a lithium ion battery pack. Unlike the smaller form-factor cylindrical cells from Samsung SDI used by Rivian, Ford will use large pouch cells produced by SK Innovation at one of its two new cell plants in Georgia. At this point, Ford is not revealing the energy capacity of the battery, but the Lightning will be available with two options. The standard range version is projected to yield 230 miles of range while the long-range version is targeting 300 miles. Based on what Ford has said about charging for the F-150, we expect the batteries to be around 110-120 kWh and 150-160 kwh.
While those numbers may not seem huge given some of the big numbers heard from Tesla, Rivian and GM, Ford is hoping to be conservative and make sure that the Lightning can deliver on the claims in the real world, as the Mustang Mach-E does. The base versions of the R1T and Cybertruck are both targeting 250 miles but neither is likely to be offered at launch. In the case of Tesla, their current vehicles generally fall short of EPA label values anyway so on-road performance is likely to be comparable.
There is one other notable feature of the Lightning’s frame. Behind the rear motor, there is a full-size spare hanging, just like on any other F-150. Truck owners made it clear to Ford that they didn’t want any sort of mini-spare or inflator kit, so a real spare it is.
Above the frame
While the Lightning doesn’t look radically different from other F-150s in overall profile, most of the exterior skin is new. The cab and doors are retained, but everything forward of the windshield and the outer aluminum on the bed has been reshaped. The wheel arches lose the undercuts that Ford has used on the last couple of generations of F-150, yielding a slightly slicker shape for less aerodynamic drag.
The most notable change is the entire front fascia. Since a traditional grille is no longer needed, Ford designers have incorporated a textured panel between the new stacked LED headlamps. For the Lariat and Platinum trims, there is a prominent white bar that stretches across the entire top edge of the fascia and down around the outer edges of the turn signals to the bumper. At the rear, a similar horizontal light bar in red spans across the tailgate along with new tail lamps. The tailgate itself has also been revised with wider metal stretching across part of the lamps.
The bed itself which is alway one of the most important features of a pickup retains the same dimensions as any other F-150. For commercial customers that use a variety of upfit equipment to carry tools, parts and other stuff required to do their jobs, everything they have now will fit right in. This is an important consideration for these users who make large investments in this equipment and often reuse it over multiple generations of trucks.
Inside the cab, the Lightning will be immediately familiar to users of the current 2021 F-150 with one notable exception. The same 15.5-inch touch screen with volume knob from the Mustang Mach-E is also available as an option. Otherwise, thoughtful features like the fold-out work surface on the center console and the max recline seats are still there. The seats may prove to be a particularly useful feature when road tripping with the Lightning. They can be reclined nearly flat, making a nice place to take a nap while charging. Other F-150 features like hands-free BlueCruise driving assist, trailer backup assist and everything that makes life a bit easier are all carried over.
There is one other design flourish to note. The charge port door is on the left front fender of the Lightning. When you walk around to the right side, you will see something that looks identical, but this is purely a trim feature to give the sides symmetry. Commercial customers in particular might have liked to have a second charge port available on the passenger side to provide additional flexibility, but no such luck for now.
What can it do?
Ford emphasized during the presentation of the Lightning that it is designing its EVs to be able to do everything that internal combustion equivalents can do and more. This certainly seems to apply to this truck starting right at the front.
While I’m all for reviving the Lightning brand for this new electric F-150, sometimes the marketers go a bit overboard with branding. Case in point is the Mega Power Frunk. Tesla popularized the concept of the front trunk or frunk on electric vehicles. Personally, I hate the word frunk, but it seems to have become the accepted term of art for front storage compartments where there is no engine taking up the space.
Most of the legacy automakers building EVs to date have not packaged their systems in such a way that this space is actually available for storage, but Ford is the exception. The Mach-E frunk is 4.7 cubic feet, but the Lightning takes this to a whole new level. What would have been the hood and grille on a gas or diesel F-150 can now be opened up with a push of a button the key fob, revealing a 14.1 cubic foot cavity. During our demo, it opened to reveal two golf bags, but this space can hold all manner of gear or luggage in a very useful shape. Like the Bronco Sport tailgate, Ford has also incorporated a pair of LED lights on the inside of the frunk lid to illuminate the area as well.
Since the grille panel goes up with the hood, it leaves an opening all the way down to bumper height making for much easier loading. There are several tie downs and cargo nets are available to hold smaller items or grocery bags in place. A removable panel in the forward section of the floor reveals another cavity below complete with a drain, just like the one in the Mach-E so you can store wet stuff. Slots on the side of the cavity can be used to store that panel vertically and use it as a partition. It’s a well thought out and practical use of this space.
On the left hand side of the frunk there are two 120V household outlets. This is part of the ProPower onboard system that Ford debuted on the 2021 F-150 hybrid. Like the hybrid, the Lightning comes standard with 2.4-kW of power delivery from half a dozen outlets in the frunk and the bed. As an option, the Lightning will be available with 9.6-kW ProPower that includes 11 outlets – 4 120V in the frunk, 2 120 volt in the cab, 4 120V in the bed and a 240V NEMA outlet in the bed. For a demo, Ford plugged in several shop lights, a cement mixer, air compressor, miter saw and a few other items and they were only drawing about 4-kW so there is plenty of power in reserve. Ford suggested that for tailgate parties, Lightning owners could skip the cooler and just put a mini refrigerator in the bed and plug it in.
Home power backup
While outlets in the truck are certainly handy, Ford is also providing another way to get power of the Lightning for your home. Ford has partnered with solar installer SunRun to install an intelligent backup power system. SunRun will install an intelligent inverter in the customer’s garage with a CCS charging connector. CCS is the connector standard for DC fast charging. When the system detects a power outage, it can automatically switch to drawing power from the truck’s battery at up to 9.6-kW. That should be enough power to keep most of the important devices in the home running such as refrigerators, stoves, heat and lights for up to three days.
A backup system like this would have been extremely helpful this past winter when Texas was hit by an unusual winter storm that knocked down the grid for days during freezing temperatures. Unlike using a gas generator, there is no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from using an electric truck to power the house. In California, which has been regularly hit with rolling blackouts in recent years to try to limit the chances of power lines sparking wildfires, this system would be able to automatically switch between charging the truck and drawing power from it as the supply toggles on and off.
One risk of using an EV in this way is that all the power in the battery will be depleted and you wouldn’t be able to drive away if needed. Ford has built a setting into the vehicle to allow users to define the minimum amount of energy they want left in the battery while using the power backup.
What about all the normal truck stuff?
Most truck buyers choose this form factor because they have a need for it to do truck stuff like towing, hauling stuff in the bed or trekking through off-road trails. Here in Michigan, on any given Friday, you’ll see a procession of pickup trucks and SUVs heading north on I-75 from the metro Detroit area toward the northern parts of the state. Depending on the time of year, a significant proportion of those trucks will be towing snowmobiles, fishing boats or jet skis. On Sunday afternoons the procession heads south.
At launch, the F-150 Lightning will only be available as a crew cab with the 5.5-foot bed and four-wheel-drive. When equipped with the extended range battery which offers a higher power output, the dual motors produce a combined 563-hp and 775 lb-ft of torque which is substantially more than any previous F-150. The most powerful 2021 F-150 is the Powerboost hybrid with 430-hp and 570 lb-ft while the base 3.3-liter V6 is a mere 290-hp and 265 lb-ft. With the standard-range battery, the torque remains the same, but the max power will be slightly less.
While the battery-powered truck is more powerful than its gas, diesel and hybrid siblings, batteries that size are heavy and the Lightning has a curb weight of about 6,500-lbs. Nonetheless, the instant on torque helps it to accelerate to 60 mph in the mid-4-second range, making this the quickest Ford pickup to date. It can haul a payload of 2,000-lbs or tow up to 10,000 lbs. That’s 1,800 lbs more than the base V6 crew-cab with 4WD, although it’s shy of the 14,000 lbs available from a properly configured 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6.
The Lightning will feature the recently introduced smart scale system from the current F-150. This uses sensors between the bed and frame to detect the payload that has been added. The smart trailer hitch to measure trailer tongue weight will also be included. This is great for making sure you don’t overload the truck, but the information from these sensors will also be fed into the range estimator. With knowledge of how much work the truck is actually doing, the system can make more accurate estimates of how much driving range is left. It will also factor in elements like real time traffic, weather and terrain downloaded from the Fordpass Connect system.
What about charging?
One of Ford’s goals with the Lightning was to make sure that it could get pretty much a full charge in 8 hours overnight on either battery size. The standard range version has support for 11.6-kW AC charging from a 48A/240V wall box. Trucks with the extended range battery get dual on-board AC chargers and come with an 80A wall box that provides 19.2-kW, enough to get that full charge in before heading to work every morning.
When taking a road trip, DC fast charging is becoming increasingly available from charging networks not owned by Tesla. The Lightning will have support for 150-kW charging speeds which are claimed to be enough to charge the extended range battery from 15-80% in about 40 minutes. As of this writing there are 4,373 DC fast charging locations with 8,026 chargers across the U.S. and Canada. Like the Mach-E, the Lightning will have access to charging locations through the FordPass app and networks like Electrify America which have implemented Plug&Charge standard will allow owners to just plug in and start charging without messing with access or credit cards.
Similar to GM’s recent announcement of its Ultium 360 charging network, Ford has expanded the number of charging providers available through FordPass to all of the major networks including ChargePoint, EVGo and several others. That means drivers will have more than 63,000 chargers available. One big enhancement that Ford is making incorporating ratings for chargers. The goal is to allow customers to rate the experience at any charger based on whether its was working, how easy it was to find and charging speed. Non-functional chargers have become one the biggest pain points for new EV drivers and Ford wants to help customers by guiding them to chargers with the highest ratings.
Another charging pain point is the configuration or most current charging stations. With the expectation that vehicles will be parked usually for a half hour or more, they are generally set up with pull-in bays. For a big truck, especially one towing a trailer, this simply isn’t a very practical solution. Drivers either need to disconnect the trailer, leave it sticking out into the aisle or potentially park across multiple bays to charge. Electrify America this year will start installing drive-through charging bays at a number of its stations with the first going in Baker, California, midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This is going to be a necessity if anyone is going to tow with these electric pickups. In general, towing with an EV cut the range in half, bringing an extended range Lightning to about 150 miles. Electrify America has several stations in mid and northern Michigan and hopefully these will be among the first to get drive-through bays because they will certainly see this use case.
The base commercial work truck version of the F-150 Lightning will start at just under $40,000 when it goes on sale about a year from now. That price is before incentives and includes standard 4WD. For comparison an F-150 XL crew-cab with the base 3.3-liter V6 and 4WD starts at $42,500 and has significantly less capability than the Lightning. The Lightning will also be available in XLT, Lariat and Platinum trims and a maxed out Platinum with all the goodies will run up to about $90,000
Tesla’s Cybertruck is the only other electric pickup with a similar starting price, but $40,000 there only gets you a single motor, rear-wheel drive variant and like most Teslas it will probably only be offered well after launch and probably only in very limited quantities before eventually being dropped like most base models from that manufacturer. The first Hummers will be over $110,000 but they aren’t really intended for the same market as the Lightning, being more of a lifestyle vehicle rather than a working truck.
The Rivian R1T is also more of a lifestyle vehicle and it will start at $67,500 with a 300-mile range. But the R1T is almost 15-inches shorter overall than the Lightning and is actually closer in size to the current Ranger than the F-150. The most direct competitor to the Lightning will be the Chevrolet Silverado Electric. So far all we know about the Chevy is that it will be built alongside the Hummer in Detroit and offer up to 400 miles of range. It probably won’t arrive until late 2022 or early 2023 and pricing is unknown, but it will probably be competitive with the Ford.
As it usually does, Ford seems to developed an electric truck specifically targeted to meet the needs and wants of people that actually buy trucks by the many hundreds of thousands every year. Ford doesn’t more nearly 900,000 F-series annually by throwing goofy ideas against the wall. If the F-150 Lightning delivers in the same way the Mustang Mach-E has, it will be vastly more successful than that 65-mile Ranger EV was 25 years ago.