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He's the first buyer of the electric F-150. Why he's the future of the car industry


Nick Schmidt was at home when he got the call he had been waiting on for months.

Schmidt had ordered the electric version of Ford's F-150 as soon as it was announced in May of last year. And more than a year later, his F-150 Lightning was finally ready to be picked up.

"When the dealership called me, they were just as excited as I was," Schmidt says. "I remember coming up to the parking lot, and they were all, like, gathered around. Everybody came outside."

It was a big moment for Schmidt, but maybe an even bigger one for Ford. This wasn't just any F-150 Lightning – it was the very first one to be delivered to an actual buyer.

Ford and other legacy U.S. auto makers are investing billions of dollars in developing electric vehicles in a mad dash to catch up to market leader Tesla, which accounted for 70% of new electric vehicles registered in the U.S. last year.

The F-150 Lightning is not only a critical part of Ford's ambitions, it poses an early test of whether established auto makers such as General Motors can compete in that electric future.

And judging by Schmidt's initial reaction, the Ford F-150 may have delivered, even as many challenges still loom.

What driving the F-150 felt like

When Schmidt first climbed into his new F-150 Lightning, it felt familiar right away: It had the same look and feel of his gas-powered F-150.

"It was exactly what I wanted it to be, just a Ford pickup truck," Schmidt says.

Schmidt isn't new to pickup trucks – he lives on a family farm in Standish, Michigan, a town of about 1,500 residents.

His family owns all kinds of pickup trucks – Ford F-150s, 250s, Chevys.

Schmidt, though, was familiar with electric cars. He works in clean energy and already owns a Tesla, but he had been waiting for an electric truck to replace his beloved gas-powered F-150.

He says the Lightning is just as powerful and dependable as his conventional F-150. He's already used it to haul dirt and lumber around, as well as to tow his Airstream.

And Schmidt says the acceleration is unlike anything he's ever experienced in a truck.

"It's fast," he says. "I mean, for a big, full-sized pickup truck, it'll do, I think, 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds or something, which is unheard of."

Chipping away at Tesla

Delivering a powerful F-150 that felt familiar was integral to Ford's strategy in the race to take on Tesla.

Sam Abuelsamid at Guidehouse Insights says automakers are spending close to $200 billion over the next five years just on electric vehicles. And the focus in the near term is electrifying their most popular models.

"There's a lot of money at stake. And if they're going to build millions of EVs now and try to convert the entire industry to electric, they have to have products that people actually want to buy."

In the U.S., that means pickup trucks and SUVs.

For Ford, electrifying the F-150 made sense. After all, the truck has been America's best-selling vehicle for decades.

Others are also turning to their most popular models. GM is rolling out an electric Silverado next year. The Ram truck is going electric. GM and Ford are working on electric versions of the Equinox and Explorer, respectively.

Early reservations for the Lightning were promising. The company initially planned to produce about 40,000 Lightnings, but the truck was so popular that Ford stopped taking reservations after it received 200,000.

The electric learning curve

Still, challenges abound for auto makers.

Schmidt ran into one big issue soon after getting his F-150 Lightning, one that is all too familiar to other electric vehicle owners: charging.

The clean energy worker took his F-150 Lightning on a camping trip with his wife and daughter his first weekend with the truck, and he found himself unable to find a charger.

"It was just not a great experience at all," Schmidt says. "We're trying to figure out what does that mean for camping trips because I'm not sure I feel comfortable going given the lack of infrastructure up there."

The U.S. still hasn't developed widespread public charging infrastructure, a problem the Biden administration is trying to address by earmarking $5 billion to build out a national network of high speed chargers.

Car makers face other problems

And there are wider problems for auto makers.

With gas prices at record highs, Americans are clamoring for electric vehicles. The problem is that automakers don't have them as the auto industry continues to be hit by shortages of key products such as microchips.

And even if you can get your hands on an electric car, they're expensive. The average transaction price for a new electric vehicle is about $60,000, according to auto data company Edmunds.

The F-150 Lightning starts at about $40,000, but that's for the base model, and prices quickly climb with traditional pickup truck features. Schmidt paid about a hundred grand for his.

There are promising signs. Notably, the majority of reservations for the F-150 Lightning were from customers new to Ford, who had not previously owned the F-150.

But sales of electric vehicles still make up only 4.6% of overall sales in the country.

Even Schmidt, who's become a fan of his F-150 Lightning, has doubts about whether Americans will widely embrace electric vehicles yet.

Schmidt thinks about his family on the farm, and he doesn't see them driving an F-150 lightning yet.

"I'm still waiting for that moment when, you know, my Aunt Jean comes down the road in an EV, and she's enjoying it, and it's just something that she felt comfortable to buy."

And if legacy auto makers are to enter an electric future, it's the Aunt Jeans of the world they'll need in order to really take off.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.