Ford’s push to win over electric car buyers began with the sporty Mach-E crossover, which is positioned to compete with Tesla’s Model Y. However, the 118-year-old automaker’s vision to lead the EV market includes a “no-brainer” component that Elon Musk lacks: a sizable base of business and government fleet customers for new battery-powered trucks and vans. And California, with its stringent pollution regulations and clean vehicle incentives, is the epicenter of Ford’s electric vehicle ambitions.
“Our ambition is to lead the electric vehicle revolution,” CEO Jim Farley stated during Ford’s Capital Markets Day webcast on May 26, as he strolled past images of the company’s new battery-powered F-150 Lightning pickup. While the plan includes more electric car and truck models for consumers, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker recently launched the “Ford Pro” subsidiary to boost sales to its 125,000 fleet customers and to assist them with vehicle charging and monitoring software. “We are the market leader in commercial vehicles on a global scale. North American trucking’s market leader.”
Farley’s strategy is based on simultaneously pursuing consumers and fleets. Tesla established its lead in the electric vehicle market by focusing exclusively on individual buyers, first with the pricey Model S sedan and X SUV–which each sell for around $100,000–and then with the more affordable Model 3 and Y, which average around $50,000 with options and taxes. Musk aspires to enter the trucking industry, but his Tesla Semi, which was originally scheduled to launch in 2019, has fallen years behind schedule. Tesla’s wedge-shaped Cybertruck, which will begin production in Texas early next year, has garnered attention for its sci-fi movie prop looks, but it’s more likely to appeal to diehard Tesla fans than to fleet buyers looking for a work-oriented pickup. By contrast, Ford’s market leadership in pickups and commercial vans enables its new Pro division to focus on selling battery-powered models such as the Lightning and E-Transit van to the same construction companies, utilities, government road crews, farms, delivery, and emergency services that already purchase Ford’s gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles.
California’s determination to convert state, city, and commercial truck fleets operating throughout the state and in and around its large, polluted ports to electric engines creates a sizable and eager market for Ford’s electric truck line. According to the Transportation Department, fleets in the United States purchase approximately 10 million trucks and commercial vans each year. California, which has the largest economy in the country, accounts for approximately one million of those units. By 2020, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will have registered over 6 million commercial trucks, vans, and semis. However, that figure excludes an unknown number of pickups and vans used by contractors and small business owners among the state’s 25.5 million registered automobiles.
California’s persistent air pollution problems, particularly in the Los Angeles area, have prompted the state to push manufacturers for decades to sell cleaner vehicles. The dangers of rapidly rising carbon pollution have accelerated those efforts over the last decade, but the state has also added financial incentives to assist individuals and businesses in making the switch to cleaner cars and trucks.
California set aside $28 million in December for incentive programs to encourage commercial and individual customers to purchase battery-powered vehicles, as well as a tens of thousands-dollar Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project for heavy-duty vehicle purchases. Its incentives are “without a doubt” the most generous in the country, according to Mary Nichols, former chair of the California Air Resources Board and co-chair of the newly formed Commission on the Future of Mobility.
Ford’s focus on fleet conversion “builds on the company’s existing strengths and capitalizes on an opportunity created by (the California Air Resources Board’s) Advanced Clean Trucks regulations,” Nichols tells Forbes.
Ford’s electric trucks are eligible for $7,500 in federal tax credits, and California offers a $1,500 rebate on each vehicle. By subtracting $9,000 from the base price of a Lightning Pro pickup and $43,000 from the base price of an E-Transit van, either vehicle becomes more affordable than gasoline equivalents.
Fleet customers, too, are becoming increasingly concerned with sustainability, according to Ford Pro CEO Ted Cannis. “It is clear that there is considerable interest, and California is clearly the nation’s leader in policy, vehicle sales, and infrastructure. We’ve received a flood of interest from large and small businesses, as well as local municipalities and universities,” he tells Forbes.
Cannis notes that the combination of federal and state incentives “provides tremendous value for our customers.” “We are going to make it as simple as possible for commercial customers to make the switch to electric.”
By 2030, Farley aims to have electric vehicles account for 40% of Ford’s global vehicle sales. And, to ensure that those products are both compelling for customers and profitable for Ford, the company is increasing spending on vehicle and battery development to $30 billion by 2025. Some of those funds will be used to develop improved lithium-ion batteries, lithium iron phosphate cells for commercial vehicles, and next-generation solid-state batteries that could provide significantly greater range per charge while remaining more affordable.
By 2030, the company expects electric vehicles to account for a third of all full-size pickups, or more than 800,000 vehicles per year. Similarly, Farley predicted that by the end of the decade, 70% of the full-size van and bus market will be electric, accounting for over 300,000 vehicles annually.
Ford Pro is a “no-brainer,” according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at consultant Guidehouse (and a Forbes senior contributor). “By focusing on customers for whom Ford already has a significant market share and who are receptive to electric vehicles, Ford can increase its EV volume in a market where the majority of the EV upstarts lack a presence.”
According to RBC Capital analyst Joseph Spak, Ford estimates it has a 43 percent market share in the United States for full-size commercial vans and trucks. He upgraded Ford’s stock to Outperform this week, citing the company’s strategy to leverage its truck market position. “We’re seeing Ford cater to commercial fleets at an increasing rate. Ford is already a market leader in this segment, but is now offering a more compelling product through electrification and connectivity, which could help it expand its share in this lucrative segment,” he wrote in a research note.
While Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, has not indicated plans to tailor its electric vehicles for fleet customers, established truck heavyweights such as General Motors and startups such as Arrival, Xos, and Lordstown Motors are developing competing electric commercial trucks, though only GM has fleet customer experience comparable to Ford’s.
California, which announced last year that it would phase out gasoline-powered automobile sales by 2035, is the largest market in the United States for passenger and commercial vehicles–as well as electric cars and trucks. According to the California New Car Dealers Association, electric vehicle sales accounted for 6.2 percent of new vehicle sales in the state last year, more than three times the national average of 2%. Ford trucks equipped with carbon-fueled engines led their respective categories in sales volume in California last year, with the F-Series capturing 31% of the full-size pickup market and the Transit Connect capturing 52% of the large van market. (According to the dealers group, Tesla’s Model 3 was the top-selling “near luxury” vehicle in California in 2018, while the Model Y was the top-selling luxury compact SUV in 2020.)
“Targeting the commercial segment is an excellent way to increase EV sales, not only because of the incentives, but also because commercial buyers are much more aware of total cost of ownership and tend to use the vehicles more than consumers,” says Guidehouse analyst Abuelsamid. Fleet sales benefit consumer vehicles because Ford can reduce costs and reuse many of the same components in commercial vehicles as they do in retail vehicles as they build commercial scale.
Ford’s shares fell 2.4 percent to $14.52 on Friday, after rising 65 percent this year. Tesla’s stock fell 0.9 percent to $625.22, down 11% in 2021.