What would it take to unite a divided country?
At this point, we seem to be down to one option: electric pickup trucks.
What? You haven’t heard about zero-emission pickups? That changed on Sunday, at least if you were among the 100 million or so people tuning in to the Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
During the game, LeBron James appeared in a 30-second General Motors ad announcing a “quiet revolution” and teasing a glimpse of one of the most counterintuitive passenger vehicles in memory: an electric pickup truck under the revived (and, in some quarters, reviled) nameplate Hummer. The company will unveil the GMC Hummer EV in May.
Surely you remember Hummers – those gas-guzzling road hogs born of the battlefields (the original Hummer H1 was a consumer variant of the military Humvee) and weaned from the oilfields (the H1 delivered some 10 miles per gallon or 27 litres per 100 kilometres).
During the boom periods of the 1990s and 2000s, when money was flowing and climate change seemed to many like a problem mostly for polar bears, these testosterone-soaked behemoths became a cultural symbol, either of gaudy capitalist exuberance, or the decline of Western civilization, depending on your point of view.
The divisive brand could not survive the Great Recession, with General Motors pulling the plug on it in 2010. But some 18,000 points on the Dow later, Hummer is back, albeit in a very different form.
The new Hummer EV promises to burn less gasoline than a Toyota Prius because, actually, it burns no gasoline. In theory, it should be able to draw sustenance from climate-friendly wind farms or solar cells, too.
In every other way, however, this battery-powered model is a Hummer through and through: an unapologetic chest-beater that the company says will deliver an otherworldly 1,000-horsepower – about twice GMC’s throatier standard pickups – yet travel 0 to 100 kilometres an hour in just over a Lamborghini-esque 3 seconds. (And yes, Twitter is already filled with male-compensation jokes.)
But while the first-generation Hummers were sui generis in the automotive landscape, for better or worse, the new incarnation is actually part of a curious new category of vehicles that is soon to become very crowded: the high-performance electric pickup.
Tesla, of course, has already planted its flag. Last November, the pioneering electric car maker whose market value just passed US$100-billion made perhaps more of a splash than its chief executive, Elon Musk, expected when he unveiled the Tesla Cybertruck, which is scheduled to begin production late next year.
Even though the public still has no idea what the Hummer EV will look like, it is hard to imagine that it will be any crazier than the Cybertruck, a luxury-priced battle cruiser seemingly from the 23rd century. It features a stainless-steel “exoskeleton” billed as bullet-resistant, a triangular roof worthy of the MoMA sculpture garden and putatively shatterproof “armour glass” windows that are capable of surviving anything but a press preview, apparently.
Not to be outdone, a Michigan-based startup called Rivian will soon beam in an electric pickup of its own from some Star Trek future, aided by US$700-million chipped in from Amazon. Like the Hummer, the company promises Tesla-like acceleration for its sleek, minimalist R1T Truck, as well as a Tesla-like price tag (prices start at US$69,000).
And then there’s another startup, Bollinger Motors, which is steering into this burgeoning category with an aluminum-bodied US$125,000 electro-pickup called the B1 that is distinctive for its boxy military styling and riveted dark grey exterior. It looks ready for an armoured assault, or at least a Batman sequel.
Pickups are supposed to be about dusty blue jeans, Budweiser long-neck bottles and Friday night lights, right? No less a bard of the barnyard than Blake Shelton once captured the essence of pickup ownership in his hit song, Boys ’Round Here (“talking ’bout girls, talking ’bout trucks, running them red dirt roads, kicking up dust”).
Maybe that’s reality back home on his ranch in Tishomingo, Okla., or one of the other properties where Mr. Shelton lives the quiet life of a platinum-selling country superstar bunking with Gwen Stefani.
But to the rest of the country, the idea that a pickup truck is supposed to be as humble and affordable as a pair of blue jeans seems as obsolete as, well, a humble and affordable pair of blue jeans.
In 2020, pickups are glamour vehicles, effectively hauling the U.S. automotive industry along with their collective chrome trailer hitch. “Automotive” industry, in fact, is something of a misnomer; it is basically the truck industry these days, as sales of light trucks, including sport utility and compact utility vehicles, accounted for 72 per cent of the U.S. light vehicle market in 2019, according to data compiled by Automotive News, a trade publication.
In truck nation, passenger cars have become so passé in the eyes of many American consumers that Ford last year announced sweeping plans to discontinue production of most of its sedan models in North America, including its revamped version of the Taurus, which was once the best-selling car in the country, to focus on trucks and SUVs.
And the bigger, the better, apparently. The three best-selling vehicles in the country last year were full-sized pickups worthy of a Toby Keith video: the Ford F-series (which will soon feature an electric F-150 option), the Dodge Ram and the Chevrolet Silverado.
Size matters in terms of price, too, with luxury pickups often priced at Mercedes levels. The Ford F-450 Limited, for example, with its leather bucket seats with “active motion” and Bang & Olufsen sound system, can run you more than US$90,000.
Things are not so bountiful in the electric-vehicle category – at least not yet. Electrics still account for less than 2 per cent of the U.S. market, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a prominent industry group. Part of the resistance is practical. You still have to charge the thing, right? But part of it, undoubtedly, is rooted in perception.
For years, popular culture has tended to portray electric vehicles either as virtue-mobiles for NPR types (think, the Nissan Leaf) or four-wheeled fashion accessories for moneyed coastal elites (we’re looking at you, Tesla).
Electric vehicle sales in the United States dipped last year amid recession fears and supply issues. Even so, sales had steadily increased over the past decade, especially elsewhere in the world, and the industry would soon see an armada of splashy new launches from Audi, Jaguar, Volvo and Mini Cooper – not to mention an electric variant of the Ford Mustang, to further mainstream the concept.
It is also becoming harder to argue that electrics vehicles can remain a tiny niche in a world of rampant wildfires, hurricanes that are classified as Category 6 if there were Category 6 storms and establishment players like Citibank and BlackRock, the US$7-trillion private equity behemoth, sounding the alarm about climate change.
It doesn’t take an automotive analyst to see that the industry, in other words, is caught between two colliding megatrends: the monster-truck-ification of America and the growing push against fossil fuels.
In a Hummer EV, or a Tesla Cybertruck, maybe you don’t have to take sides. Chardonnay or Coors Light, west Los Angeles or West Virginia, it doesn’t matter. When it comes to neck-bracing, guilt-free horsepower, what’s not to love?