Rivian Automotive beat the Detroit 3 to market with an electric pickup last year, challenging traditional truck orthodoxy with a playful design for high-end buyers.
Tesla promises to break the mold entirely this year with its wildly styled Cybertruck. And Lordstown Motors faces its own challenges making an electric work truck in a segment where loyalty reigns supreme.
Each of the three offers a clean-sheet approach to what a pickup can be in the electric era. For Rivian and Tesla, that’s something environmentally friendly, hip and cool, and which outperforms legacy rivals on metrics such as efficiency and range. Lords-town, meanwhile, is trying to undercut the Detroit 3 pickup makers on value.
But the tug of war between startups and legacy automakers is not a zero-sum game. Consumers who would never consider a boxy, gas-guzzling truck are expanding the market by moving from car-based electric vehicles to Rivian R1Ts. And loyal Tesla buyers can move into a new segment with the Cybertruck.
“There are people who desire the practicality of a pickup truck but aren’t keen on the idea of poor fuel economy and emissions,” said Robby DeGraff, industry analyst at AutoPacific. “A pickup truck that’s entirely electric is a lot more enticing to consider.”
For Rivian and Tesla, peeling off traditional pickup owners won’t be easy. But they can make an intriguing pitch to consumers, as the R1T and Cybertruck both promise sports car performance and top-level tech.
“There are always going to be buyers looking for something different, and shoppers looking at Rivian or Tesla pickups aren’t necessarily looking to buy a Chevrolet Silverado or a Ram,” said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions.
Where the challengers may have trouble is price. Rivian already has raised prices for the R1T and could do so again as it burns through its cash pile. Tesla appears to have abandoned its original $40,000 starting sticker for the Cybertruck. And the Lordstown Endurance is no bargain, even for its fleet-only buyers.
With an $87,000 starting price for the version in production, plus shipping, the R1T is squarely a luxury pickup. Its 4.5-foot bed is more geared for camping than hauling building materials. A $73,000 version is expected to begin delivery in 2024.
Still, the R1T is a formidable rival.
It was among the top-selling EVs of 2022 and has won over many reviewers. An AutoPacific survey of future vehicle buyers found that 11 percent of those considering a Rivian in the next three years were Ford owners, followed by 9.3 percent Chevrolet and 3.4 percent Ram.
“The growth of pickups as daily drivers since the 1980s opens a potential market for lifestyle trucks like the R1T,” Fiorani told Automotive News. “Many of these buyers are already spending north of $70,000 for a gas-powered truck. So the leap to a Rivian isn’t as big a deal as it would have been just a few years ago.”
At the same time, Rivian has struggled with production at its Normal, Ill., plant and has a backlog of orders that likely will take until 2024 to clear. The R1T shares the assembly plant with the R1S SUV and EDV electric delivery vans for Amazon.
As a luxury vehicle, the R1T offers more than just a tony interior and distinctive exterior styling. It’s as fast as a sports car, with a sprint to 60 mph in three seconds, and can tow up to 11,000 pounds. It rides on an air suspension that can lower for nimble handling and raise for off-road trails.
It’s also cheaper than top-trim versions of the Ford F-150 Lightning, Chevy Silverado EV and GMC Hummer EV. But it’s smaller, too — and untested in terms of reliability and service.
“Ford, GM and Ram already have a proven, established presence as a result of their combustion-engine pickups and accompanying network of dealers to fix things when issues arise, and that will also be of tremendous benefit,” DeGraff said.
When Tesla CEO Elon Musk presented the Cybertruck in 2019, the pickup’s styling and specifications were shocking. The angular, pyramidlike shape was so extreme that some Tesla fans thought Musk might be playing a prank.
But Tesla has stood by the design, and production is set for late this year. Tesla originally promised that the Cybertruck would be ready for customer deliveries in late 2021. Reservations are believed to be in the hundreds of thousands or even more than 1 million, according to tallies compiled by fans of the EV brand. Tesla has not provided a formal number.
The company has explained that exterior by saying the Cybertruck’s thick, unpainted, cold-rolled steel cannot be easily curved. So the body panels, which form a supportive exoskeleton structure, are flat. The angular top allows for an aerodynamic shape that’s critical for EV efficiency.
Although the Cybertruck has changed since its prototype presentation, likely getting slightly smaller and more expensive, the company said it has not backtracked on its performance promises.
Tesla said its advantages over legacy half-ton pickups include six-passenger seating and a 6.5-foot bed with 100 cubic feet of lockable storage and a 3,500-pound payload capacity. Depending on the trim, the Cybertruck will be able to tow 7,500 to 14,000 pounds, Tesla said.
The automaker has touted range starting at 250 miles and surpassing 500 miles on some versions, with fast charging capability of greater than 250 kilowatts.
The most notable numbers in Musk’s original presentation were the prices: $39,900 plus shipping for the single-motor version with rear-wheel drive, $49,900 for the dual-motor with all-wheel drive and $69,900 for the tri-motor. Musk has since said prices will have to rise because costs have gone up significantly during development.
Musk had suggested in the presentation that the cost of ownership of a Cybertruck would be about half that of a combustion half-ton pickup. That could be compelling for commercial buyers, although analysts can’t imagine the wild Cybertruck proliferating on construction sites.
“Commercial truck buyers are looking for a traditional pickup,” Fiorani said. “Battery-electric pickups can provide a power source for tools, which is very beneficial to many types of work. And the torque offered by electric motors is great for towing and hauling. The Cybertruck, however, will appeal to daily drivers more than commercial truck buyers.”
But Tesla may have a strong hand when it comes to availability, having opened a factory in Texas to build the pickup. Tesla also has strong relationships with battery makers and does some in-house battery production. That makes the Cybertruck the biggest wild card among electric pickups.
“I don’t think there’s 1 million reservation holders,” DeGraff said. “I do think there’s maybe a few hundred thousand firm orders that will translate to sales, especially because Musk has been hyping this truck for what seems like an eternity.”
Even with a motor on each wheel, the Lords-town Endurance might never get enough traction to be a long-term success.
For one thing, the $65,060 Endurance is expensive to build and buy. For another, its estimated 200-mile driving range between charges is significantly shorter than that of rival trucks.
The base model Ford F-150 Lightning, for example, starts at nearly $58,000 and has an estimated 240-mile range. The Lightning is also a four-wheel-drive truck, but it uses only two motors.
For now, the Endurance is available only to fleet owners such as utilities, governments and construction companies. Since fleet operators usually maintain their own vehicles, skipping consumer sales alleviates the need for costly service centers and could help Lordstown conserve scarce cash as it ramps up production.
The first trucks in a planned 500-vehicle build entered production in September. Fleet customer deliveries of the first 50 began in late November after the Endurance received its federal safety certifications and efficiency ratings from California and the EPA.
Lordstown officials won’t identify the early customers.
The company plans to deliver the next 450 pickups by spring. After that, it’s unclear whether the company has enough cash to continue. Last year, Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer best known for assembling Apple’s iPhone, bought Lordstown’s Ohio plant and injected about $170 million into the venture. A further cash infusion of $70 million from Foxconn helped kick-start Endurance production.
But soaring costs for microchips, rare-earth magnets for electric motors and materials for the trucks’ lithium ion batteries likely have eroded any profit.
That said, the Endurance appeared in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show and looked like a well-made vehicle. Its wheel-hub motors are unique and give the truck several advantages, including better traction and fewer moving parts, which can reduce maintenance costs.
Company officials at one time said a consumer version of the Endurance would be available, but those plans appear to have been scrapped.