DETROIT — Less than a year after Ford Motor Co. opened a gleaming assembly plant at its historic Rouge Complex to build the F-150 Lightning, it’s already tearing apart some of the walls to expand.
Ford is growing the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center by 50 percent while workers inside continue building Lightnings around the clock. It’s a delicate dance between production and construction, with autonomous robots maneuvering truck frames past stacks of steel beams and other building materials blocked off by orange caution tape.
The urgency to boost output for a product executives say will define the company’s future as much as the Model T did in its infancy highlights the massive stakes in the still-nascent electric pickup market. While Ford rushes to boost volume, its crosstown rivals are plotting to cut in with newer entries as Detroit’s decades-old truck war evolves for the EV age.
General Motors plans to begin shipping the Chevrolet Silverado EV in a few months, starting with a work truck in the spring and a loaded-up consumer version later in the year that will top $100,000. It will follow that with the GMC Sierra EV pickup in 2024, around the time Stellantis plans to launch the Ram 1500 EV, which will be revealed in concept form this week at CES in Las Vegas.
“We expect it to be relentless,” Darren Palmer, general manager of Ford’s battery-electric vehicles, said of the competition. “We welcome that. It’s great for the industry because we’re going to push each other to go further.”
Beyond the Detroit 3, startups Rivian and Lordstown Motors are selling their own electric pickups, and Tesla has said its Cybertruck, originally promised for 2021, will reach customers by the end of 2023.
Compared with the conventional pickup segment, which has a fiercely brand-loyal customer base and the same major players year after year, the electric truck market is a far more wide-open race.
Analysts say Ford’s head start over the other legacy pickup makers doesn’t guarantee future success. Even brands such as Ram that come later to the party could carve out sizable chunks of the segment, said Paul Waatti, manager of industry analysis at AutoPacific.
“Being first to market doesn’t always mean you’re going to be the most successful in the long run, and Ram has a lot of wind at their sail right now,” Waatti said. “I’m sure they’re benchmarking hard against everything that’s already out there, and that could be to their advantage because they already know what everybody else has in store, and they’re going to try to beat wherever they can.”
Likewise, GM isn’t worried that Ford entered the market first, said Michael MacPhee, director of Chevy truck marketing.
“We don’t have any hubris as it relates to the competition available for buyers, and that’s why we’ve put so much emphasis and effort on making sure this is the absolute best truck for our buyers,” MacPhee said. “That’s why we did the ground-up, fresh, clean-sheet approach. And that’s why we put it with the Ultium technology. That’s what’s going to separate us from some of the more mainstream competition.”
Chevy was intentional about starting the Silverado EV from scratch, rather than adapting the gasoline-powered model, MacPhee said. The result is a GM-estimated 400 miles of range — vs., at most, 320 for the Lightning — while also offering 10,000 pounds of towing capability, four-wheel steering and a midgate that increases cargo capacity.
“At the essence of every Silverado EV reservation holder is a customer who wants the truck to do truck things,” MacPhee said. “And that’s important for us because no matter what we do, there’s Silverado hardworking DNA put into all of our full-size pickups.”
The Sierra EV will have similar range and capabilities as the Silverado EV when it debuts. In a statement, a GMC spokesman said, “We are confident that customers will be thrilled with GMC Sierra EV’s unique mix of distinct bold styling, purposeful technology, luxurious appointments and next-level truck capability.”
Chevy has more than 170,000 reservation holders for the Silverado EV, with more than half of them new to GM, MacPhee said. Fewer than 40 percent currently have a pickup, and they are more concentrated on the U.S. coasts, slightly younger and more affluent than today’s Silverado buyers.
“That’s going to be an opportunity for us to talk to a new customer versus our traditional truck buyer,” he said. “That’s really the big difference.”
Newcomers have been key to Ford’s early success with the Lightning.
The automaker has said about 70 percent of orders came from people new to Ford and new to pickups.
They include TJ Quigley, a day one reservation holder from Southern California who took delivery in June of a Lightning Lariat with the extended-range battery.
Quigley previously owned a Toyota Prius and Mirai. He said he switched to a pickup because he camps a lot and liked features such as the front trunk and onboard generator.
“It’s been a great fit for my lifestyle,” he said. “I feel kind of dumb that I haven’t had one before.”
Quigley also had reserved a Cybertruck and Rivian R1T. He had an opportunity to buy the Rivian first but ultimately chose the Lightning based on Ford’s production pedigree.
“I just thought that Ford’s not going to launch their premier vehicle, the F-150, and not do it right,” he said. “They’re not going to mess it up because they can’t.”
Keith McCluskey, CEO of McCluskey Chevrolet in Cincinnati, called the Silverado EV a “game-changer” for the brand and said he anticipates it will attract many first-time pickup buyers.
“I, without question, would hate to sit back and see Tesla come out with their Cybertruck, or somebody else come out with EV trucks, and us not be in the EV game,” said McCluskey, who is chairman of the Chevrolet National Dealer Council.
“We’ve got a foot in both camps, is kind of the way we talk about it,” he said. “If things are a little stronger on ICE than everybody’s predicting, GM’s going to win, and we’re going to win. If things get real strong with EV, and there’s no range anxiety anywhere, then that’s going to turn out just right.”
Ford was able to reach the market before GM and Ram because it based the Lightning on the gasoline F-150 instead of waiting for a ground-up vehicle with a dedicated battery architecture. Another advantage of that strategy is being able to leverage the F-150’s long-established supplier network for parts.
The fact that both versions share the same paint and body shop helped reduce potential launch issues, Ford’s Palmer said.
The Lightning debuted in the middle of the global microchip shortage, but Ford has been able to keep production humming by prioritizing it over less profitable models.
The company says it’s on track to reach annual production capacity of 150,000 next year, roughly double today’s level.
“We’ve had all these things thrown at us, but we’re still sticking to the plan and delivering it,” said Corey Williams, manager of Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant as well as the Lightning facility nearby. “It’s about understanding the importance of it all to deliver.”
To stay ahead as more competition arrives, Ford aims to keep ratcheting up Lightning production, improve owners’ vehicles with over-the-air software updates and bring out another electric F-Series product, which will be built at the Tennessee assembly plant Ford plans to open in 2025.
“We’ll never rest,” Palmer said. “We’re already working on the next generation.”
Stellantis, meanwhile, is still fine-tuning the first generation of the Ram EV. It’s closely watching how the market responds to the Lightning and other electric pickups to see where Ram can create advantages.
“It’s a fact that we are coming slightly after them,” said CEO Carlos Tavares, who will be a keynote speaker at CES in conjunction with the Ram EV unveiling. “But it’s also a fact that we have the opportunity to adjust the competitiveness and the appeal of our own trucks to what they are doing.”
Ram has been gathering consumer feedback on its electric pickup through its Ram Revolution insider program and a series of town hall conversations.
“Where I think Ram is going to separate ourselves from the rest is with the full knowledge of what our competitors are doing,” Ram CEO Mike Koval Jr. said. “We will push past our competitors in terms of those important metrics like towing and hauling and, in the future, charge time, range and things of this nature.”
Koval acknowledged that Ram is “in a race” and can’t settle for merely acceptable.
“This is competition,” he said. “We want to be the best.”
Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions, expects Ram to separate itself from the pack with a range extender that could make it more appealing to those looking for a work truck.
“Ram is planning an extended-range model where it will have a small gas-powered engine to power the electric drivetrain,” Fiorani said. “So that will improve on the current paradigm.”
Despite high demand for electric pickups, the next few years could be challenging for the Detroit 3 as they shift more of their production to EVs, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights.
“Keeping the battery costs under control is going to be critical for everybody in the industry to be able to sell EVs at an affordable price point and still have a decent profit margin on them — or any profit, for that matter,” he said.
Ford executives said the company’s early profits on EVs have been wiped out by rising materials costs. It already has increased the price of the Lightning three times since the truck’s launch, with the entry-level model rising to nearly $58,000 now, including shipping, from $40,000 initially.
MacPhee said GM expects the Silverado and its other EVs to be moneymakers. The company told investors in November that its EVs would be “solidly profitable” by 2025, when it projects they will generate $50 billion in revenue, which is more than Ford brought in from its full F-Series line in 2021.
Another challenge will be building enough batteries for all the EVs that automakers intend to produce.
GM is ramping up output at an Ultium Cells battery plant in Ohio, its first with joint venture partner LG Energy Solution, and has plants under construction in Tennessee and Michigan. Ford is planning multiple battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Stellantis signed joint venture agreements this year with LG and Samsung SDI for battery plants.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces here,” Abuel-samid said. “They have to get the products. They have to execute building the products. They have to manage their supply chains. They have to make sure that they build the batteries, get the materials for the batteries and keep all the costs under control. … They face some pretty serious challenges.”
Vince Bond Jr. contributed to this report.