All hail the king of the consumer pickup truck: The rumbling, torque-monster turbo-diesel. I’ve got one and I love it. Except when I have to buy diesel for it. What is it this week, $3.49 per? Times 29 gallons. Feel my pain.
The hottest topic in electric vehicles today is, by some miracle, electric¬†pickup trucks and I couldn’t be happier about it. Could there be a better vehicle to haul around a bunch of batteries than a truck? I mean, it’s a truck.¬†It was practically born to be an electrified vehicle.
Tesla trotted out some truck drawings a few years ago, and American company Workhorse is actually getting ready to produce¬†a fairly attractive gas-electric hybrid model, the W-15, albeit for fleets only at this point. Chatter puts the price at about $52,000 for 80 miles of electric range with a BMW gas engine for charging on the go. Looks pretty good, too.
On the consumer front, all attention is focused on epickup and eSUV maker/startup Rivian, which just got touched by the hand of Ford/God to the tune of half a billion dollars. As it should, the Rivian R1T pickup has the specs and features a lot of people need and want: 400 miles of (optional) range, 750-plus horsepower with four-wheel drive via four electric motors, 0-60 in just 3 seconds,¬†innovative storage¬†cubbies (including a big frunk!), power tailgate, big sunroof and a cinema-level screen¬†in the dash. It’s impressive.¬†For a stated base price of $69,000, it should be. Expect the top-tier (as in: longer range) models to cost quite a bit more. I expected it to be expensive. My truck wasn’t exactly cheap, either.
But I’ll just say it right now: If¬†it’s my only¬†choice for an electric pickup, I’m not buying. And¬†that’s from someone who would really love to have an electric pickup truck. But if it looks like that, I’m gonna pass.
I’m not saying it’s ugly. It looks… interesting, futuristic and kind of utilitarian all at the same time, but it’s not filling my sails as it were. The odd LED quad headlights (yes, I know, gotta make yourself distinct from the crowd), the wrap-around taillight, the perhaps too-sanotech interior. It’s just too, too much too soon.¬†I’m not saying it should look like a 1993 F150 (but how cool would that be if it could/did), but so far I’m not sold on the aesthetic by any means. Call me old-fashioned, but call me a truck owner first. And we’re a fairly prickly breed of cat.
So what can¬†the big car companies¬†about to dive into the e-truck mess do to get me to go electric?
Familiarity is important: Give me a “normal” choice
This seems to be a simple request: Take the trucks you are making now, and make electric propulsion an option. Yes, I know it’s an engineering nightmare, but hear me out.
For decades, car and truck buyers had their choice when buying a new machine: either a manual or automatic transmission. No matter which you chose, one thing was consistent: The¬†vehicles looked exactly the same on the outside. Maybe springing for the auto got you a fancier interior in the deal, but otherwise, from 10 feet away, no one could tell who or what was changing the gears.
I can hear the laughter from corporate design headquarters from here, but how hard could this be? The only visual difference between the gas version of the manual shifting Big Truck 9000 and the automatic diesel Big Truck 9000 is pretty much badging and the noise it makes, so why can’t that also apply to electric pickups?
The underlying architectures between the battery and gas version of a truck could be as different as day and night, but when it comes down to it, the styling of the truck is just a shell¬†over all those parts, so why not just keep it simple, add in a frunk and call it the Big Truck 9000e? Sure would save on styling and design costs.
Same goes for the inside. There‚Äôs no reason to make the inside of an electric truck look like a¬†set piece for a Matrix sequel. A gas gauge and a battery gauge work exactly the same way and should transmit the same information in ways we¬†already understand. Oh, it’s near E? Time to recharge. KISS principle in action. No need to have the OLED Electric Truck 9000 Command And Control¬†Techno Bridge Display with video game-level graphics and 16 billion colors tell me I’m low on electrons. Just…. make it look and work just like the gas-powered truck’s interior and if I need to dial up my e-mpg stats and other data bits, well, there’s certainly an app for that or a menu on the center touchscreen. Again: Time and money saved by keeping the interior options the same across model variants.
And if you really want to make a Tron truck that looks like it arrived from the year 2049, hey, knock yourself out. After all, the electric platform opens up a lot of possibilities for new designs and certainly, some people love that techno look. Just don’t force me to choose said Tron truck or I’ll choose “no.”
Make it work-ready
Since I have a big diesel truck, I like to haul stuff with it. Help my friend move stuff, tow a boat stuff, carry a camper stuff and all my motorcycle stuff. My electric truck needs to be able to do the same thing if not more. Since the key feature of electrical motors is always-on torque, feel free to pile a lot of it on. 1,000-plus foot-pounds spread across two or four motors should do the trick. Horsepower? Sure, don’t forget that, but do remember this is a truck we’re talking about, and I care a lot less if it can beat a Corvette off the line than if it can haul my RV off the line and down 500 miles of gravel road without breaking a sweat.
And since it’s full of all those fancy batteries, let’s be sure to include voltage inverters for running gear at the job site or my camper at the campsite. Some trucks already¬†include this feature and it’s a worthwhile trend. Make sure we can run real power-hungry tools¬†that require a thousand watts of power¬†along with¬†blenders and camplights that don’t.
Give it range, then give it some backup
Until there’s a vehicle charger¬†at every gas station and at every parking space, range anxiety will exist. To that end, please, load the thing up on batteries. Give it a literal ton¬†or two of batteries. I’d say a range minimum of 600 miles unloaded is a worthy goal to start with. It is a truck after all, so it should be able to carry a lot of batteries, correct? Make it so.¬†Do the skateboard thing and then delete¬†the frunk and fill the engine space with batteries. Put them in the sidewalls of the bed. Under the seats. In the headrests. Wherever. Just pack in enough range that I can drive it most of the day down the interstate or to the coast or the mountains without worry.
Then, include a small gas (or better yet: diesel) charging engine option for charging on the go. See how small and quiet you can make it. If the frunk has to go, I understand, but in truth, does it need to go there at all? At least there’d be an engine where I expect it to be, I guess. It doesn’t have to drive the wheels, it just has to charge the batteries and power the motors so I can limp into the nearest charging station if need be. The Workhorse truck has this feature,¬†in part¬†because it has a woefully short range of 80 miles on batteries (at this point). In time, battery technology will improve and greatly extend ranges for all electric vehicles and at some point, the backup plan could go away, but I’m a prepper so I like backup plans.¬†Having¬†a generator is always a good backup plan.
Make the tech invisible
My current turbodiesel is pretty analog, but it still has a digital heart. It’s old enough that it doesn’t have a touchscreen (it was an option),¬†and I plan on pulling the stock double-DIN CD player unit and fitting a modern stereo that also features a touchscreen and backup camera connection to bring it up to modern standards and protect my neighbor’s oft-impacted mailbox. Otherwise, it’s pretty old school. The heat controls are on sliders. The dash isn’t digital. There are physical buttons that click for most things, which I like,¬†even though I’m a pretty high-tech kind of guy.
I know that in due time, we’ll just talk to our vehicles and they’ll whisk us away to distant destinations in total comfort and safety, and we’ll all just get used to it (as we have to most of life’s comforts). But I think most truck¬†owners are pretty tactile-oriented folks that like to push a button or turn a dial and get a desired result right now, rather than tap an icon and have nothing happen and then have to go wading into six levels of submenus to figure out which setting we changed a month ago that locked out the thing we wanted to do in the first place. Buttons. Keep ’em.
Give me an upgrade path
One thing I can’t do with my truck is make it better and keep it stock at the same time. Sure, I can chip it, lift it, paint it and swap out the stereo, but that’s all very expensive and I’m still making payments, so I’m keeping it as is (except the stereo). But with an electric truck, a whole world of invisible improvements becomes possible. Make batteries modular and the design of the chassis flexible enough so that if I want to add more range later (or some great new battery tech comes along), adding in more juice or swapping out battery packs can literally be done at the Jiffy Lube. I could add a bigger battery to my camcorder easily enough 20 years ago and it worked just the same except better; this is not a new idea. Make it easy for consumers to make improvements as new and better tech becomes available.
Same for drive options. Give the folks who got on board early and invested in electric vehicles a way to improve their truck with as little fuss as possible. Make motor placement modular so I and some other truck lovers can drop in a second motor over Cokes and jokes in my garage one evening. I know how to change out my batteries in my current truck, you know how to make doing so safer and easier in the new breed of machines. Enable the consumer. We tend to reward that kind of thinking with loyalty. If you force us to get a whole new truck to realize incremental improvements, don’t be surprised if we shop the crap out of your and your competition. Ford vs. Chevy is great fun, but when it comes down to dollars, it’s BS and we all know it.
Sure, I’ve been a bit harsh to the Rivian and the Workhorse. But at least they’re giving it a go and trying new things. What can legacy automakers learn from them? The pass-through storage on the Rivian has me thinking “skis” as they usually rattle around in the bed on the way up to Timberline. Great idea. The frunk? Not a new idea but handy and secure. Maybe give it a refrigeration option? How about a roll-out bed cover with solar panels on it? Trucks can sit a lot during the day, and any additional (free) charging is welcome. And turning my big crew-cab long-bed diesel in a parking lot¬†is not fun, so please consider 4-wheel steering. And if you really want to go to the next level, put the motors in the wheels themselves and allow the wheels to turn a full 90 degrees, allowing for one-point rotation of the whole truck. And a slide-out motorcycle/ATV ramp would be aces. Ask U-Haul how they do it. Now we’re talking innovation.
Just don’t forget the buttons.