Tesla needs to expedite its plans for an electric pickup truck before it loses a key advantage

The last time we saw anything pickup-y from Tesla, it was at the Semi reveal. Tesla
  • The auto industry is making some serious noise about electric pickup trucks.
  • Last week, Amazon led an investment of $US700 million in electric startup Rivian, which debuted a pickup last November at the LA Auto Show.
  • Meanwhile, Ford has announced a fully electric pickup plan.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that the company will produce a pickup, but we still haven’t seen much – Tesla needs to get moving!

Something is up in the auto industry with electric pickup trucks.

That shouldn’t be surprising, given that millions of pickups are selling every year – and automakers like Ford and General Motors are raking in massive profits on the vehicles in the US, where they’re wildly popular.

Ford has already said that it’s bringing an all-electric version of its stalwart F-150 to market. And crosstown rival GM was implicated in some chatter last week that it might be taking a stake in Rivian, a US electric pickup-and-SUV startup, alongside Amazon.

GM told Business Insider that “we admire Rivian’s contribution to a future of zero emissions and an all-electric future.” By week’s end, Rivian and Amazon had announced a $US700 million investment round, led by Amazon, making no mention of GM involvement.

Read more:
Ford is working on an all-electric version of its F-150 pickup truck

Electric pickups could be a requirement for future profits

Something needs to be up with electric pickups because all the big US carmakers need to maintain their pickup franchises in the face of rising government emission and fuel-economy standards. A world in which Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles can’t sell pickups in the US is a world in which those guys go out of business.

The whole barrage of electric-pickup speculation is an interesting development, something of a pivot away from self-driving cars, which was itself a pivot away from the electric-car craze that had gripped the auto and tech media from about 2010, when Tesla started to generate buzz.

So what about Tesla? Well, CEO Elon Musk has already recast the company’s destiny in terms of EVs and autonomy. That’s one pivot. And he’s aware that the auto market craves crossover SUVs and pickups; Tesla should reveal a production-ready version of its Model Y crossover this spring, and Musk has been teasing a pickup for a couple of years now. Most recently, Musk said last month after fourth-quarter earnings were announced that a pickup reveal could happen this summer.

But Tesla needs to step on it. That they haven’t yet officially shown a Model Y is weird. Everyone expects it to be a slightly bigger, slightly lifted version of the Model 3. The only big question is whether it will have falcon-wing doors, à la the Model X SUV (I hope not). Teslas all look great, but they also share a common design language. Even the Tesla Semi had that Tesla look. Design renderings of the Model Y would make sense to release now.

Tesla will have to up its game for a pickup

Tesla Model 3
The Tesla Model 3. Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

They get a bit of a pass on the pickup. If Tesla ends up doing a sort mid-size/full-size hybrid, it will have to be careful about sticking a bed on the back of a Model X – that would resemble a Tesla El Camino. More likely is a fresh design, something that sets a pickup apart from the company’s existing lineup of sleek, luxury EVs.

But Tesla can’t wait around forever. I’d say the serious Tesla pickup concept needs to land this year, as Musk suggested. It doesn’t matter when Tesla plans to actually build and sell it. They need to show some product because everybody else is jumping into the space and gobbling up mindshare. Rivian is just the latest example. And with $US700 million in funding and near-production-ready product already unveiled, Tesla has instantly found itself behind the pickup-truck curve.

As far as the timing goes, Tesla is now cursed by its own success. Musk wants to offer vehicles that are competitive throughout the transportation economy, hence the Semi, the pickup speculation, and the unveiling a new Roadster sports car for the high-performance crowd.

Tesla success could hold it back on pickup development

Ford Ranger
The new Ford Ranger. Ford

But job one at Tesla in 2019 is cranking up Model 3 production. Tesla lacks the scale do a whole lot of stuff at the same time. That’s simply reality. The much bigger automakers are practiced at conceptualizing, unveiling, and launching multiple vehicles across segments at the same time. In the US alone, over a dozen carmakers do this every single year. At BI, we keep track of pretty much everything that has four wheels, and we don’t spend much time being bored that are no new vehicles being touted.

If we look at pickups only, we’ve already seen, since 2015, the Detroit Big Three revamp their full-size lineups, add heavy-duty offerings, and launch or unveil a passel of new midsize trucks. But while that’s been happening, numerous other cars and SUVs have grabbed their share of the spotlight, ranging from the Ford GT supercar to the Chevy Bolt EV.

Luckily, Tesla has an easy time punching above its weight. Traditional automakers have to work hard to distinguish anything new, given that they have been doing new for over 100 years. At Tesla, all Musk needs to do is tweet out some photos. But that’s not an excuse for stalling. There’s some serious buzz building around electric pickups, and the less time Tesla spends in Ludicrous mode on its own truck, the farther behind it could fall.