Americans may think they’ll never, ever buy electric SUVs or pickups—but they will

Texas in the 2020s.
Texas in the 2020s.
Image: Mitsubishi
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Over the past year, Americans have renewed their love for gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks, those high-riding, muscular, thumbs-in-the-nose to sissy sedans and all other milquetoast affronts to the eight-piston engine. They bought a record 9.7 million of them in 2015, well over half the total number of new cars sold in the US. Last month, they continued to snap them up, even as sales of other vehicles sagged.

Such motorists may be surprised to hear that, when they go to replace their current vehicles in a few years, they’ll probably drive away in electrified SUVs and trucks. It’s not because they necessarily want them, nor even that automakers want to make them—after all, major car companies earned more than $50 billion in collective profit last year, a significant share of it from gas guzzlers.

Perversely, the reason is the opposite—Americans love their big cars so much, they’ll have no choice but to go electric, experts say.

Here’s what will happen

Over the coming years, mileage regulations in the world’s second-largest automobile market are set to tighten significantly—more than doubling from today, to 54.5 miles a gallon in 2025.

Carmakers are struggling to figure out how they’ll get there. Among their expected strategies is to lobby hard to weaken the rules. But even if they succeed in lowering standards or extending deadlines—both of which are likely—regulators will still keep the bar much higher than today, analysts say.

That’s what makes SUVs and trucks among the most obvious paths to compliance with the law—so many SUVs and trucks are sold in the US that automakers won’t meet the fuel-economy standards unless they turn them into plug-in hybrids and electrics.

As a first order of business, automakers will continue to lighten their current models, such as Ford has done by creating aluminum bodies for the ultra-popular F150 truck. But they will inevitably come to electrification, according to Devin Lindsay of IHS Automotive. “It’s going to have to be done whether consumers want them now or not,” he told Quartz. “Consumers won’t necessarily have a choice.”

If experts like Lindsay are right, the coming shift in SUV and truck propulsion reflects another counterintuitive trend: cheap gasoline is encouraging Americans to buy more vehicles than ever before. In 2016, US gasoline prices will average below $2 a gallon for the first time in 11 years, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This has helped robustly defy academic claims that the country has reached “peak car.”

But ever since Congress mandated seat belts in 1966, public policy has exerted a heavy influence on what type of cars people drive. The government’s next big splash will be with electrification: In 2009, president Barack Obama set in motion a public-policy shift toward electrified vehicles, extending a $7,500-a-vehicle subsidy passed under president George W. Bush, and throwing some $2.4 billion in grants at advanced battery and electric vehicle makers.

Those steps have produced only a small ripple in the market—Americans have bought a little over 400,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles since 2009. But the stricter mileage standards will lead carmakers to begin to incentivize pickup- and SUV-driving motorists to go electric, and that could make electrified transportation much, much bigger.

The objections don’t add up

Carmakers have already added light hybrids to their truck and SUV lines. Dan Levy of Barclays notes that carmakers are also advancing into smaller plug-in SUVs. For instance, Mitsubishi plans to sell its plug-in Outlander in the US starting this summer. And carmakers like Tesla and Volvo have produced luxury SUVs costing $45,000 through to $130,000 and more.

Mitsubishi’s Outlander will come out first.
Mitsubishi’s Outlander will come out first.
Image: Mitsubishi

Speaking to Quartz, Levy doubted that automakers will add electric or plug-in hybrid models to their ultra-popular pickup trucks or the largest SUVs—batteries for that size of vehicle would cost and weigh too much, thus pushing their price too high. In addition, “you also have a challenge of customer acceptance of electrification within that product segment,” he said.

Levy isn’t the only analyst who told me that electrified pickup trucks simply wouldn’t sell, or at least not in large enough numbers to make them profitable. Bluntly speaking, they seemed to suggest, the average American pickup driver regards electrification as a sissy upgrade.

Out of curiosity, I tested the theory with engineering students at Fresno State University, where I was visiting last week. This is a truck-driving city in one of the world’s richest agricultural regions—deeply conservative, Republican-voting territory.

Did anyone in the audience drive a pickup? I asked. A young man put up his hand. Would he drive an electric pickup? His expression changed to incredulity. “Why not?” he said. Laughter arose in the audience.

Granted, this was a single, highly impressionistic survey. And I did not mention price. But the response suggested that electric pickups aren’t as ridiculous as a lot of people think. Indeed, Cosmin Laslau, an analyst with Lux Research, said the market is just waiting to be tapped. “A huge part of the addressable market for plug-ins is exclusively crossovers, SUVs, and pickups,” he said.

Ford is taking a first step. Said Deep, a company spokesperson, told Quartz that the company will start selling large hybrid SUVs and pickups by the end of the decade. GM declined to comment.

There’s a final reason why carmakers will make electric pickups and large SUVs: Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has said he’s likely to build a pickup on top of his crossover Model X. Musk, a commercial showman equal to Steve Jobs, has already stoked fear in the industry with his coming mainstream Model III sedan, a $35,000 electric that will go 200 miles on a single charge. This has triggered a frenzy among rivals to match him.

With trucks, too, major automakers will fear an iPhone moment—the day when Musk unveils a blockbuster electric truck. And they are right to be worried.