Nason

The electric future, as dreamed up in the 1990s, centered on groundbreaking cars such as General Motors’ EV1: tiny, faceless transportation pods, their sci-fi bubble shapes a testament to aerodynamic function over stylistic form.

In 2020, the equivalent of a three-ton fist would jolt awake any futurist or environmentalist of that era: Say hello to GM’s 1000-horsepower (745kW) electric Hummer, that onetime green scourge, now rehabilitated to pass muster at any Silicon Valley cocktail party. Behold the beefy pickup trucks from Ford and Chevrolet, as well as upstarts such as Rivian and Bollinger. Elon Musk at Tesla couldn’t resist upstaging rivals with the concept Cybertruck, a truck so Mad Max-macho that it makes a Hummer seem discreet.

Of course, these battery bakkies are set to compete for glory in the US market, but it’s likely to be a very long time before this sort of vehicle catches on in South Africa, where cost pressures and a lack of charging infrastructure remain hurdles. And, of course, is your average farmer (along with the butcher, baker and candlestick maker) really ready to put their trust in trust in an electric vehicle? Probably not, but it’s certainly interesting to observe the trends in overseas markets.

Beyond the bakkie realm, new electric entrants from Tesla, Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac share a common trait: They’re all luxury SUVs, with rich accommodations, potent acceleration and generous space for families.

Musk expects his new Model Y crossover SUV to be Tesla’s most popular model yet. Mainstream brands, including Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia, are also forgoing small cars and family sedans in favour of plug-in SUVs, including the eagerly awaited Ford Mustang Mach-E. In this environment, the Mini Cooper SE, an urban cutie-pie with a smallish 177km driving range, looks like an anomaly rather than the shape of things to come.

Rivian is an especially colourful, full-scale illustration of the industry’s change of heart and tactics. When RJ Scaringe founded Rivian, after earning an engineering doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his small company completed a two-seat sports car before he tore up the plans in favour of the sleek R1T pickup and R1S SUV.

SUVs have achieved something like global dominance, and Scaringe acknowledged electric automakers’ sense of “can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Barring government actions that force buyers’ hands, he said, the threat of climate change alone isn’t enough to make most people give up the family-size, all-wheel-drive models they’ve come to love.

“The wrong answer is to say everyone has to drive around in little vehicles,” he said. “To tell them they have to switch to a completely different segment, that’s a really hard ask.”

But Scaringe, a change-the-world entrepreneur who believes all transportation must switch from fossil fuels to electricity from sustainable sources, said there was more to it than that. He echoed long-time industry logic: that transforming the most egregious gas guzzlers and emitters of carbon dioxide – which also happen to be the industry’s most popular and profitable models – will save exponentially more energy than nominal gains for smaller cars that use relatively little petrol.

“The vehicle that’s the least efficient on the road is also the most desired segment,” he said.

Rivian’s showstopping features

While coronavirus shutdowns have pushed its expected arrival deeper into 2021 – and may delay almost every electric competitor as well – the R1T looks like a trucker’s fantasy of style, tech and outdoor adventure. There are electric motors at all four wheels, up to 560kW and 640km of driving range, and showstopping features like an optional camp kitchen – with dual stovetop burners, a sink and utensil storage – that slides out from a “gear tunnel” between the passenger cab and cargo bed.

Rivian is backed by a combined $1.2 billion (R10.2bn) investment from Ford and Amazon. But in the wake of the pandemic, Ford killed a plan for Rivian to build a Lincoln-branded SUV based on its electric “skateboard platform.” Rivian still has a deal to build 100 000 Amazon delivery vans through 2030.

Warning signs for EV market

While some analysts continue to treat electric vehicles as inevitable, there are warning signs. Jaguar’s electric I-Pace SUV fell flat on its pretty face, finding just 2 594 buyers in the United States last year. A $70 000 (R1.29m) base price, $25 000 more than Jaguar’s petrol-powered F-Pace SUV, didn’t help, nor did a stingy 375km driving range.

Tesla models aside, no EV has scored as a genuine sales hit in America, not even affordable models like the Chevrolet Bolt.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, underlined that carmakers, including Tesla, had yet to prove that EVs could be a profitable long-term business.

“To say: ‘We’ve made a full EV truck, and we’re actually making money on it,’ will be quite an accomplishment,” Brauer said.

The price of batteries has a lot to do with that, even as carmakers have driven down costs sharply. Brauer said that was another reason automaker’s were recruiting trucks and SUVs to lead their electric invasions.

“There’s been an ‘aha’ moment among carmakers,” he said. “There’s a massive amount of profit built into the average truck. And you can hide and absorb the cost of these batteries much easier in a $50 000-to-$70 000 (R925 000 – R1.29m) SUV than a $20 000 economy car.”

Those pickups and sport-utes have been Detroit’s cash cows for decades, and SUVs are now the profit centres for every major car company, including such unexpected brands as Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini. Still, hiding the cost of those lithium-ion batteries remains a challenge in electric trucks, simply because there’s so much battery to hide: While Rivian expects its smooth-skinned trucks to deliver segment-best aerodynamic efficiency, it still takes enormous batteries to motivate such large vehicles, especially for consumers who demand reasonable driving range.

A final question is whether American buyers, including truck traditionalists – rarely known for obsessing over fuel efficiency – are truly ready to leap into an electric future, especially when cheap and plentiful petrol is flowing.

Ted Cannis, Ford’s global director for electrification, believes they are. When Ford wrapped its F-150 in a weight-saving aluminium body, he said, many analysts questioned whether truck loyalists would go for it. The same scepticism greeted Ford’s plan to offer downsized, turbocharged V-6 engines as an alternative to powerful yet thirsty V8s.

Now, roughly 60% of F-150 buyers choose the more fuel-efficient V6 engines. Cannis sees that as evidence that Ford can convert F-150 buyers.

Given that Ford found nearly 900 000 F-Series buyers in the United States last year, converting just 1 in 9 would give it 100 000 electric pickup sales. Considering the cold shoulder that Americans have given to any EV that doesn’t wear a Tesla badge, that would be considered a good start.