Ford, GM not expected to be first companies to jump to electric trucks

This Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, photo shows Rivian R1T at Rivian headquarters in Plymouth, Mich. The company, which plans to start selling vehicles in two years, is another in a growing line of startups and established automakers looking to break into the fully electric vehicle market and take sales from Tesla Inc., the current leader. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

General Motors has plans to plug in a pickup truck. So does Ford Motor Co., but don’t expect either of the automakers to be the first to unveil the first electric passenger pickup truck, says an electric vehicle expert.

Look for well-known electric automaker Tesla to be first, even though the company has yet to debut it. Another possible leader in electric truck production might be Rivian, the electric vehicle startup Ford Motor Co. recently sunk $500 million into, partnering on a new electric vehicle.

Rivian, based outside Detroit, already has rolled out a new electric pickup and SUV that could go on the market as soon as next year.

What is unlikely is that the first electric truck producer will be GM or Ford.

“It’s kind of the same conundrum they have with passenger electric vehicles, that it’s a huge risk for them, and if it doesn’t succeed, it’s a big problem,” said Chris Ruoff, founder and publisher of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based “CHARGED” Electric Vehicles Magazine.

“Automakers, they are really kind of worried. There is no clear path for any automaker right now to transition to electric vehicles in a successful way. There is really no example yet,” Ruoff said. “Everyone is trying to figure it out because they see that it is coming. But what automakers do a lot of is they hedge their bets, they copy successes, they copy each other’s (success), but they just don’t have a great example of what to do yet.”

That means the first big automaker to figure it out will reap huge rewards.

“But they are all very, very scared. I would imagine particularly so with pickup trucks because it’s really where all of the profits come from,” Ruoff said.

Talk of electric pickup trucks accelerated last week after GM announced it is negotiating with a new electric truck startup based outside Cincinnati to sell the sprawling GM-Lordstown assembly plant to the company to build the trucks.

The yet-to-be-named company is run by Steve Burns, founder and ex-CEO of electric truck maker Workhorse near Cincinnati.

Workhorse, which designs and manufacturers fleet delivery trucks for the likes of FedEx and UPS, would hold a minority stake in the new company that would make meat and potatoes-style fleet pickup trucks, Burns said last week.

“We have to be very conservative; we are a startup,” Burns said on WKBN 570. “We are not one of the ‘Big Three’ coming in there. We think it’s the right time to do something like this.”

The factory is proven, as is the skilled labor force, which Burns said is “going to be one of our big competitive advantages.

“Of course, we have to work with labor to work out the details, but we are excited to have them,” he said.

Workhorse is among a handful of finalists vying for a $6.3 billion contract with the U.S. Postal Service to build its new delivery vehicles. If Workhorse wins the contract, it would make sense for it to have the trucks built at the Lordstown plant, but “we have a business with or without the post office to make these electric pickup trucks for these fleets,” Burns said.

Burns’ company and GM have been in talks since January. It’s not a done deal, “but we expect to, it is our full intention to purchase it (the plant),” he said.

From an engineering perspective, electric truck power trains are excellent at towing and can produce a large amount of power at low RPMs, Ruoff said. One issue would be battery range, particularly while carrying or pulling heavy items or objects.

Because the power train takes less room than in a truck now, it affords more space for storage and because the battery pack sits low to the ground, electric trucks have a lower center of gravity.

“I really think there is a tremendous amount of challenges in getting into production for all of these vehicles, but fast forward 20 years and you’re going to have a bunch of electric trucks that are way better than any truck you can buy today just because of the fundamentals of the technology,” Ruoff said.