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Stakes are high for Ford and the fate of electric cars as F-150 Lightnings leave lots

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In the race to build electric vehicles, most automakers are chasing Tesla. Now Ford is making its biggest splash yet as it starts to deliver an electric version of its F-150 pickup truck, the country's bestselling vehicle. The stakes are huge, not just for Ford, but for the future of electric vehicles in the U.S. NPR's Brittany Cronin has more.

BRITTANY CRONIN, BYLINE: Nick Schmidt was at home when he got the call. The electric pickup truck that he reserved over a year ago, the F-150 Lightning, was finally ready to be picked up.

NICK SCHMIDT: When the dealership called me, they were just as excited as I was. I remember coming up to the parking lot, and they were all, like, gathered around. Everybody came outside.

CRONIN: And this wasn't just any F-150 Lightning. It was the very first one to be delivered. Schmidt lives in Standish, Mich., a town of 1,500. His whole family farms, and pickup trucks are kind of, like, their lifeblood.

SCHMIDT: Oh, yeah. Yeah. F-150s, 250s - I mean, they're literally tools for most of my family.

CRONIN: Schmidt works in clean energy. He loved his gas-powered F-150, but he wanted something electric. He says the Lightning is just as powerful and dependable as his conventional F-150. He uses it to haul dirt and lumber around and to tow his Airstream. And the acceleration is unlike anything he's ever experienced.

SCHMIDT: It's fast. I mean, for a big, full-sized pickup truck, it'll do, I think, 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds or something, which is unheard of.

CRONIN: It was a big moment for Schmidt, but maybe an even bigger one for Ford. Ford and other automakers are desperately trying to catch up to Tesla, which dominates the electric car market. Sam Abuelsamid at Guidehouse Insights says automakers are spending close to $200 billion over the next five years just on electric vehicles.

SAM ABUELSAMID: There's a lot of money at stake. And if they're going to build millions of EVs now and try to convert the entire industry to electric, they have to have products that people actually want to buy.

CRONIN: And that means pickup trucks. GM is rolling out an electric Silverado next year. The Ram truck is also going electric. And automakers are watching Ford's launch to see if this gamble will pay off. Still, Ford couldn't be sure that fans of its salt-of-the-earth classic American truck would embrace an electric version, so Ford went big on advertising. They even got Jimmy Fallon to evangelize about the frunk in a spoof music video.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUNK IN MY FRUNK")

JIMMY FALLON: (Rapping) When the trunk's in the front, then the truck's got frunk. So I store my stuff in the...

CRONIN: The glitz and glam of late night aside, Ford and other automakers are in a tough spot right now. After years of buildup, Americans are clamoring for electric vehicles, and automakers don't have them. Shortages, rising costs, COVID factory shutdowns - the auto industry has been up against all of it. And even if you can get your hands on an electric car, they're really expensive. Schmidt paid about a hundred grand for his. Plus, charging is still a big issue.

SCHMIDT: We took it on a - basically a 300-and-so-mile trip the first weekend we got it and ran into an issue, like, where we couldn't find a charger.

CRONIN: He worries that public charging infrastructure just isn't ready for long trips. And while Schmidt is all in on electric, he thinks about his family on the farm, and he's not sure they're there yet.

SCHMIDT: I'm still waiting for that moment when, you know, my Aunt Jean comes down the road in an EV, and she's enjoying it, and it's just something that she felt comfortable to buy.

CRONIN: It's the Aunt Jeans of the world the automakers need to get electric vehicles to take off.

Brittany Cronin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.