December 4, 2022

America’s Favorite Pickup Truck Goes Electric

Farley said that he had been at a racetrack with Field the previous weekend. “Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, there’s Jim Farley. He runs Ford, he races Cobras.’ I was with perhaps the most important American engineer of the past hundred years, and they didn’t even know who he is.” Field, who declined to be interviewed, seems intent on keeping it that way.

Ford lent me a Mustang Mach-E for several days, so that I could give electric touring a try. I invited my twenty-three-year-old son, Harry, along. Ford dropped off the sleek four-door in Brooklyn. Our destination, the Vermont farm, was two hundred and sixty miles away. In theory, this Mach-E, with an advertised range of around three hundred miles, could make it, but the car’s navigation system told me that I was going to need to recharge partway. The majority of E.V. batteries, the single most expensive component of the vehicle, are rated to last no more than eight to ten years, on average. To preserve a battery’s life, Ford recommends unplugging before eighty per cent, to avoid overheating the battery cells.

Having driven the route hundreds of times, I knew the filling stations and fast-food places by heart. Along I-95, I was used to seeing the Tesla Superchargers at the back of the service areas I frequent, but, owing to the terms of Tesla’s onerous patent, its charging stations aren’t compatible with Ford E.V.s and other electric vehicles. The Ford-friendly chargers have no Ford signage, and are discoverable only with the car’s navigation system or the FordPass app; many aren’t near the highway.

The first leg of the trip was spent in the familiar anxiety of afternoon rush-hour New York traffic, which seems worse than ever since the pandemic. It finally eased at Stamford, and I was able to test out the torque. Electric cars can’t maintain horsepower as long as gas cars can, because it’s hard to dissipate the heat that builds up in electric motors. But the motors can deliver microbursts of acceleration, without cycling through gears, in the way that an electric egg beater can go directly to the high-speed setting, skipping low and medium. My driver’s brain was far more engaged by these torquey sprints than by a steady rate of high speed. I’m pretty sure Cousin Charlie would have dug it. But the torque wasn’t truly satisfying until I turned on the “propulsion sound” in the “unbridled” mode (it’s a Mustang, remember), so that I heard the speed. Harry shook his head. O.K., Vroomer.

The navigation system correctly calculated that if we drove to the Electrify America direct-current chargers in the Chicopee Marketplace mall, in western Massachusetts, we would have twenty-four per cent of battery life remaining. We arrived after nine, so the vast parking lot was mostly empty. The Mach-E’s G.P.S. led us to the chargers—four plugs in green-glowing, gas-pump-like stations next to a Home Depot. Could this be right? No one else was using them.

We plugged in. The display on the charger said that it would take thirty-two minutes to reach seventy-four per cent, which would put us at the farm, still a hundred and nineteen miles north, with twenty-four per cent left. We walked toward the distant light of an Applebee’s, and had a father-son chat while I monitored the battery’s progress on my phone and ate ribs. This felt more like the opposite of range anxiety.

“This will make the man in your life wonder where you went.”
Cartoon by P. C. Vey

But as we drove north the temperature quickly fell into the forties, and, as it did, our projected range kept diminishing. The navigation system apparently hadn’t figured this change in weather in its original calculation, which, at least to me, seemed neither seamless nor delightful. It began to rain. We were both showing signs of range anxiety by the time we arrived, at 11:30 p.m., nearing empty. We plugged into a regular outlet in the barn, in the dark.

The Mustang didn’t charge much overnight on my 120-volt outlet. The car’s navigation system—or the spotty rural cell coverage—failed to route me to the closest Electrify America chargers, across the state border in New Hampshire, and, for safety reasons, I couldn’t use the FordPass app on my phone to navigate while the car was moving. Ford’s charging infrastructure will inevitably improve as more E.V.s hit the road. Today wasn’t my day. I finally found the charging stations in the West Lebanon Walmart parking lot, but they weren’t working properly, and angry drivers were on the phone with customer service. It was still raining; puddles had formed in the depressions around the chargers, and my feet got wet while I was trying to get a hundred and fifty kilowatts flowing into my car, which isn’t as unsafe as it sounds.

Back in Brooklyn, I asked Harry if he thought that his first car would be an E.V. “I think that being a city boy has shielded me from the utility of cars,” he replied. He got an e-bike instead.

Erich Merkle, a Ford sales analyst, told me that during the past fifty years, as boomers have aged and prospered, “they have basically expanded and collapsed entire vehicle segments.” In the seventies, he explained, “they were just coming out of school, without a lot of money, looking for an economical and affordable vehicle.” That’s how the Japanese subcompact established itself in the U.S. market. In the eighties, with “boomers getting married and having kids, they flocked to the minivan,” which Chrysler started producing in 1993. Ford came out with the 1991 Ford Explorer S.U.V., which “looked cool and the minivan didn’t,” Merkle went on, adding, “The driver could feel good about being an adventurous person even while doing nine-to-five jobs.” S.U.V.s grew steadily bigger with boomer incomes and became Expeditions. Then, “Ford thought, People are buying these large S.U.V.s. What if we packaged the best of an S.U.V. into a pickup? So we moved people into these luxury crew-cab pickup trucks in the late nineties, and Ford hasn’t looked back since.”

Although I didn’t get to drive an F-150 Lightning, I did take one of its electric rivals, Rivian’s R1T pickup, from a Rivian service center in Bushwick to Far Rockaway and back. The truck starts at $67,500, but my ride, an Adventure Package model, which advertises three hundred and fourteen miles of range and comes with a natural-grained ash-wood dashboard, kicks off at $73,000—almost twice the Lightning’s starting price. For an extra five grand, there’s a two-burner induction cooktop and a sink, for those lonesome nights out on the range with the dogies.

Still, from my first glimpse of the truck’s front end I was smitten. Instead of the usual grille full of snarling chrome-plated chompers, the R1T’s retro-futuristic front end seemed to smile, and say, “You’re not buying this vehicle for work, or at least not the kind of work people used to do in pickups, are you, cowboy?” That was true. According to a survey, more than one in ten country songs released in 2019 mentioned pickup trucks, but I still haven’t heard any lyrics about truck-drivin’ me. With apologies to Glen Campbell, that song would go: Like a laptop cowboy / Sitting out here in my truck with my M1 MacBook Pro / Like a laptop cowboy / Tele-shrink sessions and watchin’ my favorite new shows / And then buyin’ more stuff on my phone.

The R1T is fifteen inches shorter than my nineteen-foot-long F-150, which means that it can fit into most garages. It has a smaller bed, but it also has an ingenious “gear tunnel”: a cuboid space that runs through the middle of the truck.

Rivian’s founder, thirty-nine-year-old RJ Scaringe, from Rockledge, Florida, who wears horn-rimmed glasses and has a wholesome demeanor, is often likened to Clark Kent. But he struck me more as Mozart to Jim Farley’s Salieri. Unburdened by incumbency, Scaringe can freely “mess with the bed,” without alienating an existing customer base.

Scaringe grew up next to the Indian River from which the company derives its name. His father founded a mechanical-engineering firm, and a neighbor, who restored vintage Porsches, allowed young RJ to help out. He became so car-obsessed that he would stash spare parts around his bedroom. “But I had this realization that these things that I was deeply in love with were also the source of so many of the world’s problems,” he told me. “There are geopolitical challenges, air-quality issues in most of the major cities throughout the world, and we’re essentially redesigning our atmosphere’s composition at levels that are hard to imagine. It felt like it was emotionally inconsistent to love something so much that you knew was bad.”

Scaringe received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. and a doctorate from M.I.T.’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory. On graduating, in 2009, he founded a company to build hybrid sports cars and coupes. A couple of years later, he renamed the company Rivian, and, recognizing that sedans were a shrinking category and that Tesla had already launched one, he started working on an electric pickup and an S.U.V. In 2017, Rivian’s workforce, which is non-union, moved into a former Mitsubishi factory in Normal, Illinois. Amazon invested more than two billion dollars in the company, and ordered a hundred thousand vans. Ford invested $1.2 billion.

When Scaringe talks about vertical integration, he’s referring not to raw materials but to the integration of software, electronics, and hardware. “From the start of building the company, software and electronics stacks are core to what we do,” he said. “So we’re building all the computers in the car, the software stacks that run those computers, and we integrate that. Which is very different from how the auto industry has evolved.” Scaringe was the only person I met in the auto industry who talked about “software stacks” with the kind of poetic intensity that Charlie used to talk about engine parts.

By the time I returned the R1T to Bushwick, this laptop cowboy had two sweethearts. I went on the Rivian Web site and, just for fun, configured an R1T for myself. Then I forked over a thousand refundable dollars to hold the reservation on a vehicle that may take even longer than my Lightning. At some point, I’ll have to choose—the sensible, reliable, and more affordable Lightning (provided the Ford dealer doesn’t add a huge markup, which seems possible, given demand), made in a union shop, or the R1T, an electric, digital vehicle designed from scratch that is truly new but doesn’t benefit from Ford’s manufacturing experience. Or I’ll keep my gas F-150, which I recently made my last payment on, and spare the world another truck.

I spoke to Bill Ford on November 10th, the day that Rivian initiated an I.P.O. on the Nasdaq. By the end of the trading day, Rivian had reached a market cap of a hundred and one billion dollars (Scaringe was suddenly worth two billion), which made it for a time worth more than Ford, despite having no profits and little production history. (Ford’s valuation has since risen.) Although Ford’s investment in the startup paid off handsomely, Rivian’s stock price also showed that investors thought a startup that had at that point made just north of two hundred vehicles might have a better chance of transitioning into the age of digital cars than did Ford, one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.

Bill Ford seemed unbothered, however. “This is a blast,” he said, of this pivotal moment in family and company history. “I love this. All my career, I’ve kind of been waiting for this.” When he started calling for greener cars and manufacturing practices, more than twenty years ago, he has said, “the industry reacted like I was a Bolshevik.” Now, he reflected, “it’s here. I only wish I was thirty years younger.”

Last May, Ford’s daughter Alexandra Ford English, who started working for the company in 2017 as a manager in the autonomous-vehicle sector, became the first Ford woman to join the board. She was thirty-three—the age of her great-great-grandfather when he met Thomas Edison.

“She will live what I hoped to live,” her father said. “And that will be very cool.” ♦

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/01/31/americas-favorite-pickup-truck-goes-electric