The electric future, as dreamed up in the 1990s, centered on groundbreaking cars like 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 G.M.’s 1,000-horsepower 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 like 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.
Beyond the pickup realm, new electric models from Tesla, Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac share a common trait: They’re all luxury S.U.V.s, with rich accommodations, potent acceleration and generous space for families.
Mr. Musk expects his new Model Y crossover S.U.V. 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 favor of plug-in S.U.V.s, including the eagerly awaited Ford Mustang Mach-E. In this environment, the Mini Cooper SE, an urban cutie-pie with a slight 110-mile driving range, looks like an anomaly rather than the shape of things to come.
Rivian is an especially colorful, 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 E.V. company completed a two-seat sports car before he tore up the plans in favor of the sleek R1T pickup and R1S S.U.V.
S.U.V.s have achieved something like global dominance, and Mr. 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 Mr. 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 longtime 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 gasoline.
“The vehicle that’s the least efficient on the road is also the most desired segment,” he said.
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 750 horsepower and 400 miles 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 investment from Ford and Amazon. But in the wake of the pandemic, Ford killed a plan for Rivian to build a Lincoln-branded S.U.V. based on its electric “skateboard platform.” Rivian still has a deal to build 100,000 Amazon delivery vans through 2030.
While some analysts continue to treat E.V.s as inevitable, there are warning signs. Jaguar’s electric I-Pace S.U.V. fell flat on its pretty face, finding just 2,594 buyers in the United States last year. A $70,000 base price, $25,000 more than Jaguar’s gas-powered F-Pace S.U.V., didn’t help, nor did a stingy 234-mile driving range.
Tesla models aside, no E.V. has scored as a genuine sales hit in America, even affordable models like the Chevrolet Bolt.
Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, underlined that automakers, including Tesla, had yet to prove that E.V.s could be a profitable long-term business.
“To say, ‘We’ve made a full E.V. truck, and we’re actually making money on it,’ will be quite an accomplishment,” Mr. Brauer said.
The price of batteries has a lot to do with that, even as automakers have driven down costs sharply. Mr. Brauer said that was another reason automakers were recruiting trucks and S.U.V.s 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 S.U.V. than a $20,000 economy car.”
Those pickups and sport-utes have been Detroit’s cash cows for decades, and S.U.V.s are now the profit centers for every major automaker, 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.
G.M.’s moneymaking strategy hinges on its new Ultium batteries, to be built with South Korea’s LG Chem in a new $2.3 billion plant near Lordstown, Ohio. That’s part of a $20 billion push into E.V.s and autonomous cars, with 20 models expected by 2023, including the reborn Hummer, a Cadillac Lyriq S.U.V. and an electric Chevrolet Silverado pickup around 2025.
G.M. projects one million annual electric-car sales in North America and China by mid-decade, which would be more than 12 percent of the roughly eight million cars that G.M. sells worldwide.
Ken Morris, G.M.’s vice president for electric and autonomous vehicles, said any E.V. that expected mass sales must hit a 300-mile range. To bump that to 400 miles, G.M. will stack up to 24 Ultium modules, with 200 kilowatt-hours of stored energy, in its largest and most capable trucks — double the size of Tesla’s current largest packs.
Unlike any competitor, Mr. Morris said, those pouch-style Ultium batteries can be stacked vertically, not just horizontally, for more efficient packaging. A battery pack that size may weigh close to 2,000 pounds, more than the total weight of the world’s first hybrid, the Honda Insight of 1999.
For the company’s most robust truck applications, DC fast charging could deliver 100 miles of driving range in just 10 minutes on the plug. Critically, Mr. Morris said, the Ultium design and G.M.’s huge economies of scale will drive the battery costs to about $100 per kilowatt-hour of stored energy, long the Holy Grail of battery development.
He cautioned that back-of-the-envelope calculations weren’t exact. But at $100 per kilowatt-hour, a 200 kilowatt-hour battery would cost its manufacturer $20,000, more than the price of some basic economy cars.
For all that, Mr. Morris underlined G.M.’s pledge that its E.V.s will be profitable from the get-go. The trick for every automaker will be to price them attractively enough to lure customers from fossil-fueled models, but not so low that they can’t earn a profit.
“You can’t charge tons more for an electric pickup, and we understand that,” Mr. Morris said. “You have to manage the price point to be in the right spot.”
Auto executives concede that, all things being equal, a three-ton truck will never match the energy efficiency of a perky hatchback — or those Hollywood-style bubbles people once envisioned as 21st-century transportation.
Yet Mr. Scaringe notes that a tiny hatchback can’t carry seven passengers, venture off the beaten path with four-wheel drive or swallow loads of cargo.
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 gasoline is flowing.
Ted Cannis, Ford’s global director for electrification, believes they are. When Ford wrapped its F-150 in a weight-saving aluminum body, he said, many analysts questioned whether truck loyalists would go for it. The same skepticism greeted Ford’s plan to offer downsized, turbocharged V-6 engines as an alternative to powerful yet thirsty V-8s.
Now, roughly 60 percent of F-150 buyers choose the more fuel-efficient V-6 engines. Mr. Cannis sees that as evidence that Ford can convert F-150 buyers.
Given that Ford found nearly 900,000 F-Series buyers in America last year, converting just one in nine would give it 100,000 electric pickup sales. Considering the cold shoulder that Americans have given to any E.V. that doesn’t wear a Tesla badge, that would be considered a good start.