Let’s talk a little bit about the pickup truck of the moment, the Ford F-150 Lightning. Sandy Munro and Cory Steuben of automotive benchmarking/engineering consulting firm Munro & Associates recently got the chance to sit down with Ford CEO Jim Farley, F-150 Lightning Chief Engineer Linda Zhang, and Chief EV Officer Doug Field for a long-form interview. There’s a bit of ceremony at the beginning with Ford’s team rolling up to Munro & Associates to hand over an F-150 Lightning shop truck, but the interview soon picks up with some delightful tidbits about the Lightning’s development and Ford’s vision of the future.
The Demand Is Much Higher That Expected
Believe it or not, Ford didn’t expect the Lightning to be massively successful, initially expecting production to be a small sliver of current demand. As CEO Jim Farley said, “We started with, I think, 40 [thousand units], then we went to 80, now we’re breaking one side of the whole building down to expand the final assembly space that we can get to 150.” Given that the early range estimate for the Lightning was similar to that of a compliance car, I can see why Ford’s initial production targets were so low. “I think the first range estimate we did was like 100 miles,” said Farley. “That was with the old carryover frame…we weren’t problem solving. It was just like oh, it’d be 100 miles, it’d be a Focus Electric, why?”
Hey, a Focus Electric reference! While Ford’s plug-in Focus wasn’t exactly a long-range EV, it was a smart little early effort in the EV revolution. While Ford’s clearly learned from that early effort, the stigma of a compliance car apparently weighed heavily on the Lightning project in its early days. Farley said, “There was no market data that said go do this, so there was naturally people going ‘hmm, really?’”
Changing The Motor Was A Big Technical Challenge, Ford’s Aluminum Strategy Is Really Paying Off
Still, Lightning development forged on, even through challenges like significantly altering the powertrain. “At one point in the program, we did have to resize the motor, and I think that was probably the biggest technical issue that we ran into,” said chief engineer Linda Zhang. While we don’t know which motor was resized, Zhang cited towing, durability, and longevity targets as the reason for the change.
While motor changes helped with towing, experience in making the standard F-150’s aluminum body was apparently a real boon for almost everything. Weight is hugely important in the EV and truck markets, as lower weight requires less energy to move, meaning improved efficiency and capability. As Zhang stated, combining aluminum body construction with strategic weight optimization really helped boost payload capacity. “Between last year and this year, we actually dropped 285 pounds, said Zhang. “That’s really what you’re seeing in the payload increase.”
While the Lightning has caused a sensation in the full-size pickup truck segment, pricey electric vehicles are far from the final frontier. Chief EV and digital systems officer Doug Field noted that Ford eventually wants to play in the $25,000 EV space, although he admitted that the feasibility just isn’t there right now. “The good news is that software doesn’t add a lot of cost to a car, so you can make a $25,000 car to be a really great experience if you’re paying attention to the digital. The challenge is in the cost of the propulsion system,” said Field.
Farley Is Impressed By Fast EV Adoption Rates
Munro expects EV acceptance to be like Moore’s law, in the sense of doubling every year. While this is a bullish stance to take, it’s one that Farley seems to agree with. “It’s gone so much faster than people think. So much faster than the charging experience, so much faster than the purchase price, so much faster than you would’ve predicted, so it seems like it’s not a linear curve so far.”
Indeed, EV acceptance is growing so quickly that Ford is targeting a production goal of producing two million electric vehicles per year by 2026, something that Farley claims is keeping him up at night.
“That burden is on us to have the raw materials, the battery capacity, all the capital allocation for the engineering. All of that stuff line up to get to two million units, and then go back to the basics to nail the product.”
However, with more EVs on the road comes increased demand for charging. While Ford is already in the home charger space, there’s still lots of room for the company to move into the charging network arena should it ever want to. “Personally, it’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in this first cycle product is how much work we have to do on charging,” said Farley. “We have a lot of work to do to live up to the customer’s experience that we’re targeting.”
Ford Is Doing Well In The Electric Commercial Vehicle Space
While investment in consumer charging networks would be nice, it seems like Ford is largely focused on commercial charging solutions for now, with Farley admitting that “The retail side’s kind of way down the road now.” That may sound strange, but the commercial focus makes sense when you take a broader look at Ford’s ecosystem. “All these small business want to go electric. They have to install this very expensive equipment, and we have a finance company so we can finance it for them,” said Farley. Believe it or not, this investment in commercial charging really seems to be paying off. As Farley claimed, “The percentage of people buying E-Transit and Lightning Pro who buy our chargers and our software…is 50 percent, commercial.”
As for other vertical integration opportunities, Ford isn’t as bullish on chip production as it is on commercial charging and software. Doug Field said that software is “Maybe the most important vertical integration right now.” Indeed, vertical software integration brings up perks and pitfalls for automakers and consumers alike. Digital locks that could enhance cybersecurity may also lock out the aftermarket, while detailed access to consumer data is a boon for automakers but a downside for consumers. It all seems a bit snakes and ladders, right?
Ford’s CEO Is Loving Hyundai And Kia’s EV Efforts
Since the EV world is full of aggressive competition, it’s nice to see that Farley had some very kind words for Hyundai. “So impressive. Not just the number of models but the execution, the excellence in the execution.” Farley later noted that “Kia [and] Hyundai are doing a great job, we really like and admire everything they’re doing.” Automaker-to-automaker praise, you love to see it.
Ford’s Near-Term Goals For Autonomous Driving Seem Realistic
In addition to electrification, Ford sees huge value in the autonomous car race. While development of fully-automated cars with Argo AI will continue, Level 5 autonomy doesn’t appear to be Ford’s only way forward. Field explained that while Ford is certainly pursuing Level 5 autonomy to some degree, he sees real value in Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy provided adequate hand-off is part of the experience.
“You don’t have to solve the whole problem and get the steering wheel out of the car in order to give people back a ton of time. You just have to do it right and you have to make the experience right, make the transitions right, and we’re really serious about that.”
Indeed, Jim Farley also seems more focused on saving overall time rather than eliminating the driver outright across the lineup. The true value of Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy really seemed to click with Farley when he sold his Prius after leaving Toyota.
“I had the HOV sticker and it saved me maybe five minutes a day on the 405 to get home from Torrance to Santa Monica,” said Farley. Five minutes a day doesn’t sound like a lot, but Farley was in for a shock when he learned upon trading in his Prius how much people valued five minutes a day. “When I traded in my car, I actually had bought it from Toyota, my Prius was worth $5,000 more than a Prius without the sticker, and I was like ‘Really?!’” Farley then asked if all Priuses with valid HOV lane stickers carried that premium, which the sales rep reportedly confirmed. Relating that to autonomous driving, Farley said, “So that’s the cost that people are willing to pay for five minutes a day? And what if we give people 45 minutes a day? Holy smokes!” Yeah, holy smokes indeed.
Overall, I’d recommend giving the interview a listen. It’s a long video with a run time of just over 50 minutes, but it’s well worth your while. While at about 17:45 Munro does say something about Tesla’s charging stations not fading (and I’m still waiting to hear back from the company on what Sandy meant by that), his discussions with Farley, Zhang, and Field definitely make the interview worth a listen. Sometimes the ideas that shape the future of the industry aren’t explicitly stated in a public relations deck, and that’s where the value of a good interview comes in.
Lead photo credit: Munro Live