How Ford’s F-150 Lightning, Once in Hot Demand, Lost Its Luster

In July Michael Puglia drove home with what seemed like the coolest vehicle he’d ever own — a Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck.

It was big enough to haul around his children and all their hockey gear. He’d never have to gas it up, and the ride was exhilarating. “It’s unbelievably fast and responsive,” said Mr. Puglia, a pediatric anesthesiologist in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The technology is amazing.”

But as cooler weather arrived, the truck’s range — or how far it could travel before needing to be plugged in — dropped significantly. Once, after Mr. Puglia had driven 35 miles to an ice rink, his range fell by 73 miles. Another time, a 60-mile jaunt reduced his range by 110 miles.

Several trips to the dealership for software updates didn’t fix the problem, leaving Mr. Puglia wondering whether he should keep the $79,000 truck.

“People say ‘range anxiety’ — it’s like it’s the driver’s fault,” he said. “But it’s not our fault. It’s actually they’re not telling us what the real range is. The truck says it’s 300 miles. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that.”

Mr. Puglia’s short trip from excitement to frustration reflects the recent ups and downs across the electric vehicle sector. Twelve months ago, sales of battery-powered cars seemed poised for a sustained takeoff in the United States. Sales rose 46 percent last year, exceeding more than one million vehicles for the first time and making up more than 7 percent of all new light vehicles sold in 2023.

But by the final three months of 2023, the pace of sales had slowed, and automakers’ optimism had turned to caution. In the last three months of the year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association, new-vehicle registrations of electric vehicles fell from the previous three months in California — the largest market for battery-powered cars and trucks.

Ford Motor, General Motors and others are now slowing down electric vehicle investments. G.M. is also delaying the sale of some new electric models and making plans to produce plug-in hybrids, which dealers say are drawing more customer interest.

“You had a wave of early adopters, but the mainstream consumer is just not jumping up and down for E.V.s,” said Marc Cannon, an independent consultant who until recently was the chief customer experience officer at AutoNation, the country’s largest automotive retailer. “The manufacturers are putting out product, but the consumer is like, ‘We’re not participating.’”

More than almost any other new battery-powered vehicle, the F-150 Lightning seemed like a big hit when it was introduced in 2022. It was the electric incarnation of the country’s best-selling vehicle and could accelerate like a sports car. Ford at one point had 200,000 reservations for the truck. Initially, the company struggled to produce more than a few thousand a month, limiting sales. Then, last year, consumer enthusiasm was replaced by a more cautious appraisal.

Demand for the Lightning slackened, and the reservation backlog all but disappeared. In 2023, Ford sold 24,000 Lightnings, a 54 percent increase from the previous year but well short of the annual production of 150,000 that the company had once aimed for.

Marin Gjaja, chief operating officer of Ford’s electric vehicle division, said sales of the Lightning, while lower than original expectations, are strong. In the fourth quarter it was one of the top-selling electric vehicles after Tesla’s Model Y and Model 3.

And in states where electric vehicle ownership is high, like California, Oregon and Washington, the Lightning accounts for about 30 percent of sales of the company’s F-Series trucks. “We continue to see the Lightning as a success and a critical part of our portfolio,” Mr. Gjaja said.

Late last year, Ford said it would reduce the number of F-150 Lightnings it produced in 2024 by about half, to around 1,600 a week. The company also moved some 1,400 workers who had been making Lightnings to other models, including the gas-powered F-150. In January, Ford sold 2,258 Lightnings, six fewer than in the same month last year.

It’s not just Ford. Pickup trucks have been a particularly disappointing segment of the electric vehicle market. Rivian sold about 17,700 of its R1T pickup last year, the same as in 2022, according to Cox Automotive. Tesla and G.M. introduced electric pickups last year — the Cybertruck and a Chevrolet Silverado — but have produced very few so far.

Ford’s chief executive, Jim Farley, told Wall Street analysts on Tuesday that the company would put more emphasis on smaller electric vehicles and less on larger ones with an aim of competing with more affordable models from Tesla and Chinese automakers.

The problem with large electric pickups, owners and analysts said, is that despite having fantastic technology and acceleration, the vehicles suffer sharply reduced range when drivers use them for the kinds of things people buy trucks for: to haul heavy stuff, tow trailers and drive in nasty weather.

How far an electric vehicle can travel on a charge can vary greatly. Edmunds, the market researcher, tested a Lightning in 81-degree weather and drove the truck 341 miles on a full battery. But cold temperatures can reduce the range of all electric vehicles. During a recent frigid spell in the Midwest, some owners of electric cars saw their range fall by half or more. Owners who do not have chargers at home suffer more because they cannot preheat their cars while they are plugged in before heading out. Rain, hills, aggressive driving and heavy loads can also reduce range.

Mr. Gjaja said some drivers might not yet be aware of all the steps they could take to maximize the truck’s range. Programming the truck to warm up its battery on cold mornings can reduce loss of range. And using “one pedal” driving mode recoups energy when the vehicle brakes.

Driving at 65 miles per hour will use up less energy than driving at 70 or 80 m.p.h., reducing the need for a charging stop, he said. “Going slower may get you there faster.”

Ford recently began equipping Lightnings with energy-saving heat pumps that can help extend driving range.

Tesla, which makes about half of all electric vehicles sold in the United States, was sued last summer by three Californians who contend that their cars failed to achieve the range advertised by the automaker. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, was based partly on a Reuters report that said the range figures on Tesla’s dashboard screens did not take into account weather conditions and other important factors.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Even when cold weather is not a problem, range can be an issue.

Mike Kochav, who owns a construction company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., bought a Lightning in summer 2022 for about $90,000. His business already owned six gasoline-powered F-150s. He loved the electric truck’s ride and technology, but found his range fell rapidly when the pickup hauled equipment to job sites around the state.

“The minute you put a trailer on it, the mileage drops,” Mr. Kochav said. Since he sometimes drives 200 to 300 miles a day, he had to stop to charge — which often took 45 minutes, or longer if he had to wait for a charger.

“It was too many delays in my day,” Mr. Kochav explained. He traded in his Lightning last summer.

Public electric vehicle chargers are available at about 61,000 stations across the country, according to the Energy Department; by comparison, there are 145,000 gas stations.

Electric vehicles also tend to have more problems than hybrid or gasoline models, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports. That may be because manufacturers are still learning how to build reliable battery-powered vehicles. G.M. recently told dealers to stop selling the electric Chevrolet Blazer, a new model, while it fixes software issues that can cause certain features to stop working.

Electric vehicles are also more expensive than comparable hybrid and gasoline models, even after several rounds of price cuts last year. Federal and state tax breaks for certain electric cars and trucks help but don’t always close the gap.

Still, the industry is forging ahead. Analysts estimate that 1.5 million electric vehicles will be sold this year, up from almost 1.2 million in 2023. The Biden administration is expected to complete new emissions rules next month. Its proposal would, in effect, require battery-powered cars to make up two-thirds of all light-vehicle sales by 2032, though the details could change before the regulations become official.

Ford and other manufacturers can perhaps take heart in consumers like Mr. Kochav. Despite his frustrations, he said he was open to giving the Lightning another try in a few years, especially if Ford improved the truck’s range and charging stations became more commonplace.

“I really loved it,” he said. “I really think I’ll go back to it one day.”