auto ev
The lynchpin to GM's $27 billion plan to roll out 30 new electric models by 2025 is the least likely of suspects: the second coming of the military-style, gas-chugging Hummer 1 SUV that first debuted in 1992. Image Credit: Supplied

A suggestion for auto advertisers: Nix the hard hats. Tone down the falling lumber, avalanches of boulders and slow-motion suspension sag as a super-sized truck bed swallows all that dreck.

Cowboy cosplay never gets old and certainly sells some trucks, but we just don't work that tough - at least not the majority of the 2.5 million Americans who bought a pickup truck last year. The rig has largely taken the place of the minivan, the sedan and pretty much everything in between. It's even hauling off a hunk of the SUV market.

So when it comes to the parade of electric pickup trucks finally heading to dealerships and directly to customers - at least a dozen are in the works - auto executives finally have an easy answer to the industry's perennial question: Who's going to buy this thing?

Simply put: most everyone who drives.

“We're seeing customers come out of just about everything,” says RJ Scaringe, founder and chief executive officer of Rivian Automotive Inc., which is expected to launch one of the first battery-powered pickups in June. “Of course, [they're] coming out of pickups, but often”-more likely”-coming out of SUVs, out of other electric vehicles.”

The hurdles, for Scaringe and his rivals, aren't insignificant. For one, many of the promised pickups are coming from startups that have never built a thing, let alone spent decades fine-tuning supply chains and ecosystems of dealers and service infrastructure. Already, some of those in the e-truck race are struggling to pick up any speed, let alone finish.

The window stickers will be supersized as well. While a bare-bones Ford Ranger that runs on dinosaur goo can be had for about $25,000, analysts expect the simplest of these quiet rigs to command close to $50,000. General Motors plans to get six figures for its GMC Hummer EV, as does Bollinger, one of the newbies. Government subsidies for going green would help. Those have been hard to come by under President Donald Trump, but are expected to grow under President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised a huge expansion of charging stations.

auto ev
The R1T is designed to be an "electric adventure vehicle" for lovers of the outdoors. It's well-suited, the company says, to mountain biking, kayaking and off-roading. Image Credit: Supplied

Though Rivian's new rig and its electric rivals will certainly be capable of hard labor, automakers shouldn't worry too much about toughness, towing or even charging capacity in the corn belt and across the oil fields of Oklahoma. Their shiny, battery-powered half-tons will swamp the coasts, from the suburbs of Boston to the senior centers of Florida and west to Portlandia. Because that's where their gas-burning trucks go these days, according to registration data compiled by IHS Markit.

Not that persuading Americans to plug in their vehicles has ever been an easy sell. EVs occupy just about 2 per cent of the U.S. market, and the vast majority of those sales belong to one company, Tesla. A combination of lax environmental regulations and Americans' fear of running out of juice has left the U.S. badly trailing China and Europe in EV uptake.

In the past decade, the $90 billion U.S. truck market has veered notably toward buyers like Danielle Woodford. The Charleston, South Carolina, medical researcher just ditched her Volvo station wagon for a Ford F-150 with plush trim and a touch-screen dash. Woodford mostly ferries her two young daughters around town in the pickup. Twice a month, when she stages apartments for local realtors, the F-150's bed comes in handy for furniture. Plus, the heated seats and buttery leather are more opulent than what her old Volvo offered.

“It won't fit in the parking garage near my work “and it has a hell of a blind spot,” she explains. “The girls love it though. We just went to the drive-in theater and got to sit in the bed.”

Texas is still America's truck capital, accounting for almost one in eight pickup sales. However, it is closely followed by California and Florida, hardly the heartland. New York comes in No. 5 in truck sales, with almost 4 per cent of the market.

It's not that wheat farmers and cattle ranchers are switching to hatchbacks. Rather, families have realized that a pickup handles a Costco run with ease”-and relative efficiency. Woodford's new rig has a supersized cab but still manages 22 miles per gallon. The trucks have been pulling in a widening demographic of weekend warriors as sales of towable campers, boats and other five-figure toys surged in recent years. Last year, U.S. consumers bought 280,000 boats, the second-highest tally since 2007, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

None of this was lost on the auto executives as they started to greenlight a crush of electric trucks. Hau Thai-Tang, Ford Motor Co.'s head of product development, said the company is sanguine about electrification. “I personally think the transition will play out faster than most people think,” he explains. “I don't think it's going to be linear; I think we'll reach an inflection point,” in the next few years.

Thai-Tang noted that the pickup market in particular has two features that work well with electric drivetrains: It's huge and relatively lucrative. The scale and padding on the sticker price push the unit economics into profit faster than they would on, say, a compact electric sedan.

The pickup crowd is not, traditionally, the greenest consumer demographic. But it does pay attention to technology gains and puts a premium on curbside appeal. Gary Silberg, head of the auto sector at consultant KPMG, thinks tradesmen and ranchers may not jump into electric trucks right away, but he expects orders to flow in from “a new breed of buyer looking to make a statement.” Consider Rihanna, who took part in the unveiling of Rivian's pickup prototype in Los Angeles. “That's the new market opportunity,” Silberg says. “That was chic and cool and went right at the Hollywood crowd.”

Not all the startups will survive. Nikola and Fisker seem particularly precarious, analysts say. GM on November 30 dramatically downscaled its support of Nikola; Fisker has a track record of failure. Those that don't make it might still get picked apart by a legacy automaker looking to benefit from any marketing juice left in the brands.

EVgo, the nation's largest network of fast-charging stations, has been prepping for months. It's been developing larger sites that can handle trailers, beefing up the capacity of its cords and trying to predict which quarter-panel of the electric pickups will contain the charging port. “It's a bit like playing real-time Tetris,” explains Ivo Steklac, the company's chief operating officer and chief technology officer.

What EVgo isn't overly worried about is building new infrastructure in rural places. “I guess, to a certain extent, it was a good surprise to see that [the truck market] doesn't necessarily tilt towards purely rural,” Steklac says. “There's definitely solid coverage in the top 10 areas.”

This means electric vehicles might finally find mainstream acceptance by hitching their wagon to the star model in America: pickups.