Pickup trucks have suddenly become America’s latest battleground in electrification: Whether General Motors’ reborn Hummer, deep-pocketed start-ups like Rivian, or Tesla’s Mad Max-style Cybertruck, companies are angling for a slice of a wildly popular and lucrative market.
Ford, whose F-Series pickup has been America’s best-selling vehicle of any type for 38 straight years—it finds 900,000 customers in a good year—is targeting mid-2022 for its own all-electric F-150. Until then, its redesigned aluminum-bodied 2021 F-150 delivers a pair of electron-centric gains: Primarily, it has the first full hybrid system in any full-size pickup, with class-leading EPA fuel economy of 24/24 mpg in city and highway driving.
But as with the blistering acceleration of a Tesla, or the 1,000-horsepower and off-road wizardry of the upcoming Hummer, it’s the F-150’s secondary benefit that has the truck world buzzing: An ingenious mobile generator that can deliver up to 7.2 kilowatts of clean, continuous power.
Ford's new Pro Power Onboard mobile generator for its new F-150 pickup has four outlets for 110 volt gear, one for 240-volt. Photo: Ford
Dubbed Pro Power Onboard, the system recruits hybrid hardware, including a 1.5-kWh, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery below the cargo bed, and a 35-kilowatt (44 horsepower) motor/generator sandwiched between the 10-speed automatic transmission and twin-turbocharged, 3.5-liter gasoline V-6.
The hybrid powertrain generates 420 horsepower and a mighty 570 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel this roughly 5,850-pound truck to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds. That’s quicker than a Porsche Panamera V-6 sedan, and the Ford can also tow up to 12,700 pounds and haul 2,120 pounds in its cargo bed. To divert some of that electric muscle, Ford adds a power inverter that converts DC power to AC. A covered panel in the cargo bed integrates four 120-volt power outlets, plus a dedicated 240-volt circuit with a NEMA 30-amp twist-lock connector. Inside the passenger cab, 110-volt outlets peer from the front console and back seat.
Whether margarita-blending tailgaters, campers, or construction workers and other hands-on pros, truck fans have been discussing the toys, tools and even houses they might power with 7,200-watts of juice on hand.
“You can hook up your space heater, make your coffee and smores, connect a grille, a mini-fridge—it’s fun,” said Nigar Sultana, Ford’s Pro Power Onboard feature owner.
Ford has produced a chart showing potential uses, including simultaneously powering enough equipment for a construction crew to frame a house. A compound miter saw and circular saw, gang battery charger (for portable tool batteries), hammer drill, air compressor and flood lights would together draw about 7,000 watts. Mobile metal-shop workers could power a TIG welder, plasma cutter, chop saw, angle grinder, air compressor and work light. On the recreational side, beyond typical camping or tailgating gear, truck adventurers could charge a pair of electric dirt bikes and air compressor, with enough left over to griddle some burgers. Ford itself has used the F-150 to charge its Mustang Mach E electric crossover that goes on sale in December—the ouroboros of EV charging, but it can be done. During my test of a top-shelf, $74,000 F-150 Limited version, I plugged in a toaster oven and Bluetooth speaker, while hunting for friends with welders and other gear to give the system a better workout.
Sure, truck owners could do all that with a robust, portable gasoline generator. But Sultana says Pro Power Onboard is a more-elegant, integrated solution: A 5.5-kilowatt generator can weigh more than 200 pounds, takes up roughly 14 cubic feet or of valuable bed space (plus a gas canister for a refill), and is obnoxiously loud and polluting when it’s running. In addition, the F-150’s dedicated power electronics smooth out voltage ripples to produce a clean sine wave, allowing the truck to power laptops or other sensitive electronic equipment.
The truck’s lithium-ion battery supplies power until it’s depleted, at which point the gasoline engine starts up to generate electricity and top off the battery. Ford says the system can operate at maximum output for 32 hours on a full tank of gas, with the truck either in park or in motion. A Secure Idle function, familiar from Ford’s Police Interceptor models, allows the engine to idle while locking doors and the transmission to ensure no one can drive off with the running truck.
The Ford’s enormous, 12.0-inch center touchscreen shows power draw in watts for each of two circuits. The Ford Pass smartphone app monitors usage remotely or controls it within onboard Wifi range. Ground-fault detection shuts the system down if necessary, with a reset via the app or touchscreen.
To put that power in household terms, Ford says the system can power 28 average-size refrigerators. That odd metric aside, the Ford could clearly supply an electrical lifeline in case of power outages, saving a freezer full of steaks, keeping the lights (and widescreen TVs) running, and sparking envy in the darkened homes of neighbors. Energy regulations, Sultana says, prevent Ford from marketing that capability. But the idea of vehicle-to-home power, or vehicle-to-grid, has been in play for some time. That includes Nissan Leafs being used as mobile power backup after Japan’s 2011 earthquake. Companies are also floating bi-directional smart home systems to store grid energy in EVs, return it to homes during emergencies, or save money during peak usage periods.
Ford's 7.2-kilowatt system adds $750 to models with the PowerBoost hybrid drivetrain. The automaker offers a less-robust 2.0-kilowatt system on non-hybrid models, or a standard 2.4-kilowatt unit for hybrid F-150’s. The hybrid tech itself adds a significant $1,900 to $4,495 to the F-150’s price, depending on the model. But a high-quality gas generator alone can cost more than $2,000, and does nothing to boost fuel economy or trim pollution for the truck itself.
With the F-150, Ram 1500 and Chevy Silverado routinely taking the top three spots in U.S. vehicle sales, pickup fans clearly don’t blink at lavish trucks whose average transaction price soared to $49,888 in 2019, more than $12,500 higher than the average ticket for all new cars. The coming crop of all-electric pickups, with the $112,595 Hummer Edition 1 expected to be first from the gate late next year, may kick those transaction prices even higher. With the F-150 PowerBoost, and electric trucks to come, we’ll see how many truck buyers are willing to pay a premium to cut energy costs and global-warming emissions—or just throw one hell of a tailgate party.