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Although there are more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road today than ever before, the market remains somewhat limited, prompting various explanations: People want longer driving ranges. They need more seating, power, or storage capacity than most small EVs offer. They worry about accessible charging options. Or they just plain love the look and feel of a big, honking truck or SUV and are not willing to drive around in a little electric sedan.

All of these limitations arguably could be addressed by big EVs, though developing these products has been hampered by practical realities. Most problematic is the need for sufficient battery power. To ensure enough capacity to power the trucks and SUVs, designers had to add so many batteries, and thus so much weight, that the design became impossible. But new developments in battery technology and efficiency are starting to suggest solutions to this seemingly irresolvable challenge.

For example, the new Ultium batteries that GM plans to use in its EVs can store 200 kilowatt hours of energy, and because they can be linked in a vertical stack (rather than requiring a horizontal layout, as previous batteries have needed), they can be added to the engine compartment in novel ways. For a truck though, the required Ultium battery pack would still weigh about 2,000 pounds—or about the same amount as the very first EV that Honda introduced to consumers.

Still, automakers believe there is promise here, and battery technology continues to improve. Notably, they believe it will be easier to integrate or “hide” the expenses of the batteries in a high-end truck, which already cost more, than it was to add them on top of traditional economy cars, like small sedans. Therefore, both Ford and Chevrolet plan to introduce electric pickup trucks, and Audi, Tesla, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes all have indicated their pursuit of electric SUVs.

At the same time, new entrepreneurs are seeking a foothold in this emerging market. A startup called Rivian—which has a contract to manufacture 100,000 vehicles that Amazon plans to add to its delivery fleet—has produced a 750 horsepower electric truck, with a 400-mile driving range. It uses electric motors on the four wheels and also offers innovative accessory packages, such as a gear tunnel between the bed and the cab that can slide out to reveal a camp kitchen, complete with stovetop burners and a sink. The company founder is devoted to environmental protection, and as he notes, developing an electric truck is key, because replacing the vehicles that offer the worst gas mileage will be far more impactful than trading out efficient small cars for electric versions.

The question then becomes whether truck and SUV drivers will find the appeal of EVs sufficient to prompt them to switch. Many observers are skeptical; a general assumption is that people who love driving big, powerful trucks are less concerned about their carbon footprint. But Ford also points to evidence that buyers have been convinced by efficiency pitches in the past. For example, when it introduced a more efficient V6 engine for its popular trucks, approximately 60 percent of F-150 buyers willingly switched to the less powerful model.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When pricing electric versions of popular trucks and SUVs, what factors should car manufacturers consider? Should these new products be priced higher, lower, or the same as conventional models?
  2. Which consumers are the primary target market for different models of EVs: small sedans, trucks, SUVs, and so on?

Source: Lawrence Ulrich, “New Breed of Pickups Mixes Horsepower and Battery Power,” The New York Times, May 7, 2020