The electric pickup trucks are here. Or almost here, at least.
General Motors dropped a pretty penny to debut its new electric Hummer during the World Series on Tuesday, with a two minute, 15 second ad that took up an entire commercial break. But you won’t be able to drive the $112,595 truck off the lot until at least next fall. Tesla staged a smashing reveal for its Cybertruck pickup nearly a year ago, but it hasn’t yet built the factory in Texas that will make the thing—reservation holders can probably expect their truck late next year. Other contenders on the horizon include the Rivian R1T, which, after delays, should show up around June; the Lordstown Endurance (sometime in 2021); the Bollinger B2 (probably next year); the Ford F-150 EV (due mid-2022); and the Nikola Badger (thanks to the company’s leadership troubles, who knows). The competition for the hearts and minds of the American electric pickup truck buyer is bound to be intense.
Here’s the problem: No one knows who that American electric pickup buyer is. “It’s not like people have been asking for this,” says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at Edmunds. “I don’t think people have been sitting around and thinking, ‘You now what I need? A pickup with an electric motor.’”
Josh Tavel, General Motors’ lead engineer for electric vehicles, has some ideas about the Hummer buyer. And also about who they are not: “For the majority of people, the environment and making the world better isn’t, maybe, their number one reason for purchasing something,” Tavel says. It would be weird, nay, yucky, to bait green car nerds with a Hummer. In the aughts, the brand became a cultural stand-in for pre-recession excess, a monster truck for folk intrigued by war games who didn’t fret over ozone holes.
Instead, GM is after today’s outdoor adventurers, or at least the people who like to look like outdoor adventurers. The Hummer, which hasn’t been produced since 2010, has gained a cult status among a certain kind of driver. General Motors wants the car aficionados and gearheads to pay attention: Convince them to go electric, and the whole world might follow. To wit, GM has stuffed plenty of nerdery into the electric pickup. It comes with a crab walk feature that lets the truck drive diagonally and in-vehicle graphics developed by video game maker Epic Games. The truck, the first to use GM’s new Ultium batteries, has a 350-mile range. It can do 0 to 60 in three seconds.
In many ways, electric pickups like the Hummer, the Cybertruck, and the Ford F-150 do make sense. Electric vehicles are fast and powerful, and because they have fewer moving parts than their internal combustion engine friends, easier to maintain. Electric pickups are likely to cost more up-front than nonelectric ones for a while yet—the average full-size pickup is $50,000, according to Kelley Blue Book—but buyers may save money in the long run.
For automakers, pickups are a great opportunity: They have high margins and are more profitable than most other passenger vehicles. The rash of startups making electric pickups and SUVs is not an accident. Their higher prices make it easier to “hide” the up-front costs of research, development, and batteries than with a cheaper sedan or compact.
Plus, pickups—albeit less expensive ones—are the most popular cars in America. Rule the electric pickup market, the logic goes, and you rule the future. “If suddenly everyone wants an electric truck, that would put automakers already making them in a favorable position,” says Caldwell, the Edmunds analyst. No one wants to be left behind.
Still, today’s electric pickup might not be the breakthrough vehicle that the EV faithful were waiting for. To win the US market, you will eventually have to reach beyond car nerds, and the folks who are prepping for dystopia.
To move the world from gas can to plug, automakers will need to convince the everyday driver to change their behavior, Caldwell says—to take a chance on a still unpopular technology, to remember to charge overnight or at work, to figure out where the local charging station is, if it even exists. “It’s one thing to get enthusiasts excited about this vehicle,” Caldwell says. “But if you can’t get mainstream consumers excited, what’s the point?”