I have soft hands and skinny jeans. For most of my life, I’ve blocked out the omnipresent stream of pickup truck commercials, never relating to the promises of twin cabs, towing capacity, or pulling up to a job site and dumping out a ton of gravel. Pickup trucks weren’t for me.
Then I rode in an electric pickup truck. And I was smitten.
On Wednesday, the electric truck company Rivian debuted with one of the largest initial public offerings in history. The company’s stock price ascended to make it worth more than Ford and GM (though, notably, Ford owns a 12% stake in Rivian).
You may be scratching your head as to why. So what if its R1T is the first electric pickup truck on the market? Why is Wall Street so hot on Rivian? That answer is actually pretty obvious. Pickup trucks are the top-selling category of the U.S. auto industry every year. The top three vehicles of 2021 are all pickup trucks. Not only do they move the most units, but trucks are also the most profitable segment of the vehicle industry.
According to Reuters, each truck GM sells generates $17,000 in profit for the company, while many car models make only about $1,100. Rivian has sold only a few hundred trucks so far, and its trucks won’t be widely available for years (and probably won’t be profitable at all any time soon). Still, historically, pickup trucks make money. Which is why we see Rivian’s peers jumping into the EV pickup space, including Tesla (with the Cybertruck), GM (with the Hummer EV) and even Ford (with the F-150 Lightning).
However, where all this market analysis falls short is in answering another question: Why do people love pickup trucks so much? They’re safety hazards and gas guzzlers. Electrifying a truck doesn’t make it less deadly to cyclists, or inherently good for the planet.
Earlier this year, I drove out to Dearborn, Michigan, to take a ride in the new F-150 Lighting. Because I’d never even driven a pickup truck before, I borrowed a gas-powered F-150 from Ford for the four-hour drive from Chicago to get a baseline of comparison.
I expected to be impressed by the Lightning, which is out in spring 2022 (more on that in a bit). I did not expect to fall in love with a stock Ford F-150, even though it’s been the top-selling vehicle in America for more than 40 years. I soon realized there’s simply nothing like a full-size pickup truck when it comes to overall user experience.
The first time I climbed into the cabin—and you do have to climb up—I was shocked at just how large and comfortable it was. I drive a Toyota RAV4 crossover (the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. that’s not a pickup truck), which is by no means a tiny vehicle. But sitting in the F-150 feels less like you’re in a car than a small room. The center console is wide enough to hold a laptop. The space is designed to be a place you can work in while on a job site, but that space is pretty darn appealing every other moment of your ride, too. As for the back row of seats? They had more legroom than my crossover!
I felt guilty driving this big machine for no practical reason, but those cognitive concerns were quickly outweighed by the joy of driving such a commanding vehicle. You don’t need to tow anything to appreciate the power of a full-size pickup truck—250-plus horsepower goes 0 to 60 in 6.6 seconds. Couple this power with incredible visibility (you literally look down on crossovers from a pickup truck cabin) and you feel downright invincible cruising down the highway. The pickup truck is a sensation, I realized, not just a statement of American identity.
How does all this relate back to the Rivian? Because when you electrify a truck, its sensational comfort and power only grows. Without a gas engine, the front end of the Rivian (and Lightning) is dedicated to storage. It’s a front trunk, or “frunk.” Ford representatives told me months ago that having the option for enclosed storage would open the market for their electric pickup dramatically as a family vehicle. The electric plugs in the Lightning’s frunk, they suggested, would be used for crockpots at tailgates, as much as tools at construction sites.
As for the power? I can tell you the 0-to-60 time is in the 4-second range. But what I can barely express is what it felt like to ride shotgun in an electric F-150 around Ford’s test track. When you floor the pedal of a 6,500-pound pickup, you are no longer driving a truck; you are driving a bullet train. It’s comfortably anchored to the road with a low center of gravity thanks to its hefty chassis full of batteries. The speed with which so much mass accelerates so smoothly—remember, there’s no gear shifting in an electric vehicle—is an unparalleled sensation in driving. (Truly. I’ve driven a Tesla, a McLaren, and a Polestar.)
The Rivian R1T, with four electric motors, is even faster, with a 0-to-60 of 3.2 seconds. And its cabin is more posh, with the fit and finish of a $70,000 vehicle (whereas the Lightning starts at roughly half that). To be honest, I think there’s so much power packed inside these large vehicles that we should probably question their legality on public streets. But while I barely trust myself to drive an electric pickup, I’d still jump at the chance.
If only I could fit one in my garage.