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How Ford's F-150 Lightning, once in demand, lost its luster

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How Ford's F-150 Lightning, once in demand, lost its luster

In July, Michael Puglia went home with his coolest vehicle ever – a Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck.

It was big enough to hold his children and all their hockey equipment. He never had to fill up for gas, and the trip was enjoyable. “It's incredibly fast and responsive,” said Mr. Puglia, a pediatric anesthesiologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The technology is amazing.”

But as colder weather approached, the truck's range – or how far it could travel before having to plug in – decreased significantly. Once, after Mr. Puglia drove 35 miles to an ice rink, his range was reduced by 73 miles. Another time, a longer trip of 60 miles reduced his range to 110 miles.

Multiple visits to the dealership for a software update did not resolve the problem, leaving Mr. Puglia wondering whether he should keep the $79,000 truck.

“People say 'range anxiety' – it's like it's the driver's fault,” he said. “But it is not our fault. In fact they are not telling us what the actual limit is. Truck says it's 300 miles. I don’t think I ever got that.”

Mr Puglia's short journey from excitement to frustration reflects the recent ups and downs in the electric vehicle sector. Twelve months ago, sales of battery-powered cars in the United States were on a steady rise. Sales surged 46 percent last year, surpassing one million vehicles for the first time and accounting for more than 7 percent of all new light vehicles sold in 2023.

But by the final three months of 2023, the pace of sales had slowed, and automakers' optimism turned to caution. New vehicle registrations of electric vehicles in the last three months of the year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association fell over the past three months California – the largest market for battery-powered cars and trucks.

Ford Motor, General Motors and other companies are now slowing electric vehicle investments. GM is also delaying sales of some new electric models and planning to produce plug-in hybrids, which dealers say is drawing customer interest.

“You had a wave of early adopters, but mainstream consumers are not jumping up and down for EVs,” said Mark Cannon, an independent consultant who until recently was chief customer experience officer at AutoNation, the country's largest automotive retailer. Were. “Manufacturers are introducing products, but consumers are like, 'We're not participating.'”

More than almost any other new battery-powered vehicle, the F-150 Lightning looked like a big hit when it was introduced in 2022. It was the electric incarnation of the country's best-selling vehicle and could accelerate like a sports car. At one point Ford had 200,000 reservations for the truck. Initially, the company struggled to produce more than a few thousand per month, limiting sales. Then, last year, consumer enthusiasm gave way to more cautious assessment.

Demand for Lightning decreased, and the backlog of reservations almost disappeared. In 2023, Ford plans to sell 24,000 Lightnings, up 54 percent from the previous year, but well short of the annual production of 150,000 the company once targeted.

Marin Gazza, chief operating officer of Ford's electric vehicle division, said Lightning sales were below original expectations but strong. It was one of the best-selling electric vehicles in the fourth quarter, behind Tesla's Model Y and Model 3.

And in states where electric vehicle ownership is high, like California, Oregon and Washington, the Lightning accounts for about 30 percent of the company's F-Series truck sales. “We continue to view Lightning as a success and an important part of our portfolio,” Mr. Gazza said.

Late last year, Ford said it would cut the number of F-150 Lightnings produced by nearly half in 2024, to about 1,600 per week. The company shifted about 1,400 workers building Lightnings to other models, including the gas-powered F-150. In January, Ford sold 2,258 Lightnings, six fewer than the same month last year.

It's not just Ford. Pickup trucks have been a particularly disappointing segment of the electric vehicle market. According to Cox Automotive, Rivian sold about 17,700 cars of its R1T pickup last year, with the same number expected in 2022. Tesla and GM introduced electric pickups last year – the Cybertruck and the Chevrolet Silverado – but very few have been produced and sold so far.

A big part of the problem, owners and analysts said, is that despite having great technology and acceleration, electric pickups' range diminishes rapidly when drivers use them for the same things people buy trucks for: Hauling heavy loads, pulling and driving trailers. In bad weather.

How far an electric vehicle can travel on a charge can vary greatly. Market researcher Edmunds tested the Power in 81-degree weather and drove the truck 341 miles on a full battery. But cold temperatures could reduce the range of all electric vehicles. During the recent cold snap in the Midwest, some owners of Tesla and other brands saw their range dropped by half or more. Owners who don't have chargers at home face more trouble as they are unable to preheat their cars when plugged in before going out. Rain, hills, aggressive driving and heavy loads can also reduce the range.

Mr Gazza said some drivers are still not aware of all the steps to be taken to maximize a truck's range. Programming your truck's battery to warm up on cold mornings can reduce range loss. And using “one pedal” driving mode allows energy to be recaptured when the vehicle brakes.

Driving at 65 mph will use less energy than driving at 70 or 80 mph, he said, reducing the need for charging stops. “Going slow can get you there faster.”

Ford recently began equipping Lightnings with energy-saving heat pumps that can help extend driving range.

Tesla, which makes about half of all electric vehicles sold in the United States, was sued last summer by three Californians who argued that their cars failed to achieve the range advertised by the automaker . The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, was based in part on a Reuters report that range figures on Tesla's dashboard screens do not take into account weather conditions and other important factors. Reuters also reported that the company had created a team of employees to address customer complaints.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Even when cold weather is not an issue, range can be an issue, especially for larger pickup trucks used for work.

Mike Kochav, who owns a construction company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, bought a Lightning for release in the summer of 2022 for about $90,000. His business already has six gasoline-powered F-150s. He loved the ride and technology of the electric trucks, but found that their range dropped precipitously as the pickups hauled equipment to jobsites across the state.

“As soon as you put a trailer on it, the mileage goes down,” Mr. Kochav said. Since he sometimes drives 200 to 300 miles a day, he had to stop to charge – which often took 45 minutes or more if he had to wait for a charger to be available.

“My day got delayed a lot,” Mr. Kochav explained. He traded in his Lightning last summer.

According to the Department of Energy, public electric vehicle chargers are available at about 61,000 stations across the country; By comparison, there are 145,000 gas stations.

According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, electric vehicles have more problems than hybrid or gasoline models. This may be because manufacturers are still learning how to make reliable battery-powered vehicles. GM recently had to tell dealers to stop selling the new model electric Chevrolet Blazer while it fixes software problems that could cause some features of the sport utility vehicle to stop working.

Even after several rounds of price cuts last year, electric vehicles remain more expensive than comparable hybrid and gasoline models. Federal and state tax breaks for some electric cars and trucks help but don't always make up the difference.

Still, the industry is moving forward. Analysts estimate 1.5 million electric vehicles will be sold this year, up from about 1.2 million in 2023. The Biden administration is expected to complete new emissions rules next month. In fact, its proposal would require two-thirds of all light vehicle sales to be battery-powered cars by 2032, though details could change before the rules become official.

Ford and other manufacturers can probably count on consumers like Mr. Kochav. Despite his disappointments, he said he was willing to give the Lightning another try in a few years, especially if Ford improved the truck's range and charging stations became more common.

“I really liked it,” he said. “I really think I'll go back to it one day.”

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