As Ford officially launches the F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck on Tuesday, the day should be marked well, because it starts the clock on the legacy that fast-moving Ford CEO Jim Farley will leave at what has suddenly become the sexiest automaker in America.
By mainstreaming BEV technology in its iconic pickup truck — the best-selling nameplate in America for four decades running and a treasured implement for millions in its petroleum-powered form — Farley is betting that Ford can leapfrog an electric-vehicle market that has been only slowly increasing and put his company in the pole position as consumers finally embrace the inevitable future of propulsion.
In turn, establishing battery power as a safe and even exciting proposition through the Lightning, the Mustang Mach E and other all-electric models that will be coming quickly is foundational to the other biggest move that Farley has made in his 18 months as CEO: Committing the company to invest tens of billions of dollars in making its own batteries, and hundreds of thousands of future EVs, in new plants in Kentucky and Tennessee.
“Any time you have a radical change to your most successful product, you really are betting the company,” William C. Ford Jr., Ford’s executive chairman, the long-reigning scion who tabbed Farley as CEO over internal rival Joe Hinrichs, told the Detroit News. “If this fails, it will have a hugely negative effect upon us. But I think it’s going to be just the opposite.”
Ford CFO John Lawler called Lightning “a game-changer” during a recent Bank of America event. “Seventy percent of the customers are new to the segment. I think there are a lot of folks out there that wanted the utility of a pickup truck. But they didn’t want what came with that from an environmental standpoint. Now they have the option.”
But while Ford is rapidly laying down the path to the future of the automobile, in a strange way the new journey is wrapped in its past. In fact, the 118-year-old company was marking the occasion of the Lightning launch on Tuesday with an event at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, a new manufacturing facility built on the site of the Rouge vertical-manufacturing complex established by Henry Ford.
A peek inside the Lightning factory like the one I got recently is jarring for a number of reasons. Instead of a traditional assembly-plant layout where conveyors lug around heavy and massive internal-combustion powertrains and ergonomically assisted assemblers place them in the chassis, the Lightning factory puts individual trucks on skids called autonomous guided vehicles that simply glide from one cluster of workers to another.
The Lightning powertrain is a bed of lithium-ion batteries that lies at the bottom of the machine. The digital dashboard that workers use to track the manufacturing process looks like a really fun video game; ultimately, there will be no paper attached to each unit as it goes through the assembly process. Already, the largest collaborative robots in the world work side-by-side with human assemblers at the plant.
The streamlining and flexibility involved in the plant layout and production process means that Ford can accomplish in 500,000 square feet at the Lightning plant what requires one million square feet at the adjacent plant where the company makes the traditional F-150.
And as Ford has begun allowing outsider access to the plant, managers manifest the most excitement when they demonstrate a capability of the Lightning that has nothing to do with historic truck attributes such as horsepower, payload or durability. They showcase how the new vehicle’s onboard electric generator can power up another vehicle or can alone keep an entire house lit up and even air-conditioned during, say, a grid outage.
“You can’t overestimate the importance of this,” Patrick Soderborg, Ford e-powertrain systems engineer, told my small tour. “There’s never been a system like this where you could use a truck to go help people.”
The other thing that gets plant denizens most juiced is showing off a “trunk” space in the front of the Lightning, under the hood where a traditional F-150 would have its engine. The huge compartment can handle up to 400 pounds of stuff and has a drain at the bottom in case owners want to use it as a cooler for a “frontgating” party.
“There’s history here, but there’s a new history we’re creating now,” said Chris Skaggs, planning and implementation manager at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. Indeed, by placing the F-150 plant within the Rouge, Ford is saying practically as well as symbolically that its transition to becoming primarily a maker of electrically powered vehicles will build on Ford’s legacy at the same time the company is sweeping away much of it.