The president will make a case for his infrastructure plan, including $174 billion for electric vehicle technology and 500,000 vehicle charging stations. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the plan “left-wing social engineering,” but Ford likes the way Biden thinks.
The company is a key player in what has been a rapid political turnabout that has corporate America ahead of the Washington curve on climate policy. While their onetime Republican allies in Congress wield fossil fuels as weapons in a culture war, Ford and other companies are moving ahead without them.
“The politics around climate change haven’t caught up with where the stakeholder community is,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project. “Big companies are making their own commitments and actually doing things with respect to the energy transition. The Ford F-150 is part of that.”
And it will be a particularly important case to watch. Pickups, especially the F-150, are deeply rooted in the American psyche and the economy. And their sales are heavily concentrated in conservative states where high-speed electric charging stations are few and far between.
In Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, more than 40 percent of all vehicles sold are pickups. In South Dakota, Alaska and Idaho, more than a third of all vehicles sold are pickups, according to a Cox Automotive analysis.
Those are also states with the lowest density of high-speed charging stations, according to Department of Energy data, and could be the biggest beneficiaries of Biden’s plan.
Ford and its automaker allies want Washington to ramp up spending on electric vehicle infrastructure.
“It’s our hope that both parties will be able to work together to improve our roads, repair our bridges, and facilitate the transition to a connected and electric future,” company spokesperson Melissa Miller said in an email. “Ford is committed to that future—that’s why we’re electrifying our most iconic vehicles.”
House Republicans this week will release their own infrastructure spending proposal, which will be about a fifth of the size of the administration’s. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a leading member of the Finance Committee, are among Republicans who want electric vehicle drivers to start paying into the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded primarily by gas taxes.
If a consensus can be found, it isn’t likely to hew to Biden’s plan, which Republicans have declared dead on arrival. McConnell has reserved particular criticism for electric vehicles.
“The total amount of funding it would direct to roads, bridges, ports, waterways and airports combined adds up to less than what it would spend just on electric cars,” the Kentucky Republican said of the Biden plan, speaking on the Senate floor in April.
That rhetoric resonates with certain primary voters — and certain truck owners. The rise of electric trucks, which include the Chevrolet Silverado, General Motors’ Hummer, and Tesla’s Rivian, is landing at the dead center of the fossil fuel culture wars.
Some truck owners are blocking charging stations at convenience stores. States in recent years were forced to adopt new laws after coal rolling — the practice of modifying trucks to spew black soot and fumes, also known as Prius repellent — gained popularity amid rising Tesla sales.
To protect the F-150’s special status, Ford will have to meet customers on their turf. Early adopters of electric pickups most likely will be other companies. Fleet buyers focus more on cost of ownership than purchase price, and work trucks are less likely to make long-distance road trips where charging stations are scarce. Those corporate and small business buyers will amplify the call for policy change in Washington.
But Ford’s marketing calculus will be different on the consumer front. The Lightning might be Prius-like in its conspicuous conservation, but it will muscle its way onto petro-masculinity’s territory with beefy torque and plenty of horsepower. Ford has promised that the electric vehicle will have the same DNA as its internal combustion brethren.
“The fear would be that we put out this electric truck and our conservative, red-state consumers think, ‘Oh, Ford’s gone soft. Ford’s gone over to the dark side.’ I am positive that Ford has spent a lot of time and money looking at that possibility,” said Aaron Ahuvia, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who has done work for Ford.
“Ford does not need to count on lots of sales of electric trucks to uber-Trumpy conservatives,” Ahuvia said. “But Ford needs to worry if having the electric truck as an option contaminates the brand with those people. They seem to be confident that those people will tolerate the electric truck as an option. You would hope the politicians would follow suit.”
As Washington deadlocks on issues that once drew broad support — such as infrastructure spending — companies are being pressured on multiple fronts to act in the absence of U.S. policy. Multinationals like Ford, for example, must meet climate standards set by China and Europe.
“Automakers look at the rest of the world and have realized the U.S. has been lagging, and they’ve charged ahead knowing that the U.S. has to catch up,” Cox executive analyst Michelle Krebs said. “If you do business around the world you have to meet the regulations and demands in those markets, too.”
Then there’s the younger generation of workers demanding social and environmental accountability from employers. And consumer brands in particular can’t ignore a rising wave of teenagers marching in the streets to demand climate action as global warming manifests in ways that can’t be ignored.
There’s also the question of bottom lines. Big investors are pushing environmental, social, and governance standards on public companies and threatening to pull their money out of businesses that don’t make the grade.
While many Washington Republicans stick to their defense of fossil fuels, automakers have shifted their political giving. The industry as a whole was a big giver to Republicans until 2006, when its political donations became split more evenly between the parties, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2020, automakers heavily favored Democratic candidates for the first time.
It’s not just electric vehicles. Some of Washington’s biggest trade associations, including the American Petroleum Institute, American Chemistry Council, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, have endorsed carbon pricing, which was anathema to corporate lobbyists just a decade ago. Now, politicians who once embraced carbon markets as a way to curb emissions have backed away from the idea.
“This is new ground for a lot of people in Washington right now. The bases of each party have shifted” since the House passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of federal affairs at the American Chemistry Council. “The rules that applied then don’t necessarily apply today.”
Wall Street, too, is making advances on climate amid growing political and cultural pressure, with many companies adopting voluntary metrics for environmental risk reporting and other environmental, social and governance, or ESG, disclosures.
Mackler called it “a capital pileup.” Investors want to put money into projects, but there are too few of them because existing policy frameworks haven’t caught up to demand.
In the end, money and the market will drive policy change, said Laura Oswald, founder and president of Marketing Semiotics, a brand strategy firm that has done work for Ford.
“The market really does drive this. If it was not going to be profitable and popular with their market base they’re not going to do it,” Oswald said. “The groundswell of the market is going to be the thing that moves Washington.”