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How Ford's Once In-Demand F-150 Lightning Lost Its Shine| GuyWhoKnowsThings

In July, Michael Puglia drove home with what looked like the coolest vehicle he'd ever owned: a Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck.

It was big enough to carry his kids and all of his hockey equipment. He would never have to put gas and the ride was exhilarating. “It's incredibly fast and responsive,” said Puglia, a pediatric anesthesiologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The technology is amazing.”

But as cooler weather arrived, the truck's range (or the distance it could travel before needing to plug it in) decreased significantly. Once, after Puglia had driven 35 miles to an ice rink, its range was reduced by 73 miles. On another occasion, a 60-mile excursion reduced its range by 110 miles.

Several trips to the dealership for software updates didn't fix the problem, leaving Puglia wondering if he should keep the $79,000 truck.

“People say 'range anxiety'; it's like it's the driver's fault,” he said. “But it's not our fault. They don't actually tell us what the actual scope is. The truck says it's 300 miles. I don't think I've ever achieved that.”

Puglia's brief journey from excitement to frustration reflects the recent ups and downs in the electric vehicle sector. Twelve months ago, sales of battery-powered cars seemed poised for a sustained takeoff in the United States. Sales increased 46 percent last year, surpassing more than one million vehicles for the first time and representing more than 7 percent of all new light vehicles sold in 2023.

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

Ford Motor, General Motors and others are slowing their investments in electric vehicles. GM is also delaying the sale of some new electric models and making plans to produce plug-in hybrids, which dealers say are drawing more customer interest.

“There was a wave of early adopters, but the general consumer just isn't jumping to electric vehicles,” said Marc Cannon, an independent consultant who until recently was director of customer experience at AutoNation, the country's largest auto retailer. . “Manufacturers are launching products, but the consumer is saying, 'We're not participating.'”

More than almost any other new battery-powered vehicle, the F-150 Lightning seemed 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. Ford had 200,000 reservations for the truck. Initially, the company struggled to produce more than a few thousand a month, which limited sales. Then last year, consumer enthusiasm was replaced by a more cautious assessment.

Demand for the Lightning declined and the stockpile virtually disappeared. In 2023, Ford sold 24,000 Lightnings, a 54 percent increase from the previous year but well below the 150,000 annual production the company had once targeted.

Marin Gjaja, chief operating officer of Ford's electric vehicle division, said sales of the Lightning, while lower than original expectations, are strong. In the fourth quarter it was one of the best-selling electric vehicles after Tesla's Model Y and Model 3.

And in states where EV ownership is high, such as California, Oregon and Washington, the Lightning accounts for about 30 percent of sales of the company's F-Series pickup trucks. “We continue to view the Lightning as a success and a critical part of our portfolio,” Gjaja said.

Late last year, Ford said it would cut the number of F-150 Lightnings it would produce in 2024 by about half. at around 1,600 per week. The company also moved about 1,400 workers who had been making the Lightning to other models, including the gasoline-powered F-150. In January, Ford sold 2,258 Lightnings, six fewer than the same month last year.

It's not just Ford. Pickups have been a particularly disappointing segment of the electric vehicle market. Rivian sold about 17,700 of its R1T pickup truck last year, the same number as in 2022, according to Cox Automotive. Tesla and GM introduced electric trucks last year (the Cybertruck and a Chevrolet Silverado), but have produced and sold very few so far.

A big part of the problem, owners and analysts said, is that despite having fantastic technology and acceleration, electric trucks suffer from greatly reduced range when drivers use them for the kinds of things people buy trucks for: transporting heavy things, towing trailers and driving. in bad weather.

The distance an electric vehicle can travel on a charge can vary greatly. Edmunds, the market researcher, tested a Lightning in 81-degree weather and drove the truck 341 miles with a full battery. But low temperatures can reduce the range of all electric vehicles. During a recent cold snap in the Midwest, some owners of Teslas and other brands saw their range drop by half or more. Owners who do not have chargers at home suffer more because they cannot preheat their cars while they are plugged in before leaving. Rain, hills, aggressive driving, and heavy loads can also reduce range.

Gjaja said some drivers may not yet be aware of all the steps they can take to maximize the truck's range. Programming the truck to warm up its battery on cold mornings can reduce range loss. And using the “one pedal” driving mode recovers energy when the vehicle brakes.

Driving at 65 miles per hour will consume less energy than driving at 70 or 80 mph, reducing the need to stop to charge, he said. “Going slower can go faster.”

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

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

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Even when cold weather isn't an issue, range can be, especially for large trucks used for work.

Mike Kochav, owner of a construction company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, purchased a Lightning in the summer of 2022 for about $90,000. His company already owned six gasoline-powered F-150s. He loved the handling and technology of the electric truck, but found that its range decreased quickly when the truck transported equipment to job sites across the state.

“The minute you put a trailer on it, the mileage goes down,” Kochav said. Because he sometimes drives 200 to 300 miles a day, he had to stop to charge, which often took 45 minutes, or longer if he had to wait for a charger to become available.

“In my day there were too many delays,” Kochav explained. He traded in his Lightning last summer.

Public electric vehicle chargers are available at about 61,000 stations nationwide, according to the Department of Energy; By comparison, there are 145,000 gas stations.

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

Electric vehicles are also more expensive than comparable gasoline and hybrid models, even after several rounds of price cuts last year. Federal and state tax breaks for certain electric cars and trucks help, but don't always close the gap.

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

Ford and other manufacturers may be encouraged by consumers like Mr. Kochav. Despite his frustrations, he said he was willing to give the Lightning another chance in a few years, especially if Ford improved the truck's range and charging stations became more common.

“I really loved it,” he said. “I really think I'll do it again someday.”

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