Until the public unveiling of the Mustang Mach-E in November 2019, Ford was not generally considered to be a serious player in the electric vehicle space. The Mach-E was the first purpose-built EV from the automaker, but just days later in the same hangar at the Hawthorn, California airport, Tesla
On April 26, 2022 Ford held an event at its Rouge Electric Vehicle Center (REVC) in Dearborn, Mich. to officially launch the Lightning. While Ford had a number of early customers on hand at the event along with executives, UAW leaders, employees and media, no keys were handed over yet the way they would be at a Tesla event. That task will be left to the local dealers that handle the transactions with customers.
While Ford’s REVC event was labeled as a celebration of the production launch of the Lightning, the facility has actually been building trucks since August 2021 beginning with low rate pre-production of vehicles for testing and validation. In recent weeks, the production rate has been ramping up and nearly 2,000 trucks have already been built, many of which were visible in empty employee parking lots at Ford offices as we were shuttled from company headquarters to the plant. Now that the Lightning has been released for delivery, those trucks will be loaded onto trains and transporters in the next several days and weeks on their way to customer hands.
The Lighting represents one of the most important product launches for Ford in decades. By creating a battery electric version of the vehicle that has been the best selling nameplate in the US market since the 1980s, Ford is going to test the real demand for EVs in this market. Most of the 1 million plus EVs sold over the past decade have gone to customers that can be considered early adopters. But if F-150 buyers are willing to go electric, it’s a sign that almost anyone will.
Since Ford announced plans to build a dedicated assembly facility for the Lightning adjacent to the existing F-150 plant at the Rouge concept, it has expanded the capacity several times. When ground was broken in August 2020, Ford only expected to sell 25,000 trucks per year at first. That was quickly increased to 40,000 and then doubled to 80,000 by the time the first pre-production trucks rolled out last summer. Not long after that, the number was bumped to 150,000. Ford now plans to have annual EV production capacity across several plants of 600,000 units by the end of 2023.
By the time Ford turned off the registration system for the Lightning in December 2021, it had more than 200,000 pre-orders from consumers along with an undisclosed number from commercial fleets. Along with GM’s announcement that it had 140,000 pre-orders for the Silverado EV and claims of more than 1 million registrations for the Tesla Cybertruck, there definitely appears to be consumer interest in electric pickups.
Ford has an advantage right now with a full year head start on GM and Tesla (Rivian began production of its smaller R1T last September but has faced a number of issues that have limited production to just a few thousand units so far) but it still faces lots of challenges. The chip shortage is the most immediate one, but CEO Jim Farley announced that whatever stock of chips Ford has will be prioritized for Lightning to get those out the door to customers as soon as possible.
The bigger long-term challenge is battery supplies. For the first time, Ford is using batteries from SK Innovation which has opened the first of two new battery plants in Georgia. Ford has also announced a joint venture that will bring three more plants with a combined capacity of 129 GWh annually by 2025. However, all of those battery plants must be fed with raw materials such as lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt. Lithium and nickel prices have spiked in the past year and most of those materials are mined outside North America and processed in China. Asked whether Ford planned to invest in the battery material supply chain, executive chairman Bill Ford said “we’re looking at that.”
In addition to production capacity of 600,000 units by the end of next year, Ford is also targeting production volumes of 2 million units a year by 2026 at which time, it’s new Blue Oval City plant near Memphis Tennessee will be operational.
The F-150 Lightning is still a long way from matching the records set 100 years ago by the Model T when it put America on wheels. However, this product has the potential to prove that mainstream American drivers really are willing to go electric.