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Palmer noted that owners who have accessories that fit their existing F-150s—like the cover I have for my truck’s bed—won’t need to buy new gear. “Customers told us, ‘Do not mess with the bed!’ ” Palmer explained to me. Retaining the gas F-150’s body also saves Ford hundreds of millions in retooling costs. The trade-off is that the new electric truck doesn’t look very new.
The motors may be small, but the batteries aren’t. Zhang said that one of the challenges was figuring out how to fit a battery large enough for a target range of two hundred and thirty miles (this bumps up to three hundred miles with an extended-range battery) without having to change the shape of the interior or “delete” the spare tire. “Once you put the motor and the battery in, where do you have room for the spare?” She and her team found the room in a redesign of the truck’s undercarriage.
Which part of the truck was Zhang proudest of? That would be the frunk. We got out to peer inside. “Four hundred litres,” she said. “That’s a lot of beer.”
I followed Williams along the moving assembly line, the production method that Ford introduced at the Piquette Avenue Plant, in Detroit, in the early twentieth century. In the gas-F-150 assembly plant, a few hundred yards away from the E.V. center, a conveyor system under the factory floor moves the vehicles along the line, creating a dungeon-like din. In the new plant, autonomous, battery-powered “skillets” containing a truck’s chassis glide noiselessly along spotless polished-concrete floors. At each work-station, crews affix parts and the Lightnings begin to assume their familiar boxy shape. Having no fixed conveyance system makes it easier for the company to adjust capacity.
Another notable difference is the absence of paper checklists, which Williams said used to be knee-high at the other plant’s workstations; now everything is on screens. But perhaps the most significant difference is a dearth of human workers. Because E.V.s contain fewer parts, they take less work to put together, which means fewer workers are needed. The United Auto Workers wants to preserve existing jobs. President Biden, responding to these concerns, offered up to $12,500 in tax credits on E.V.s bought from unionized shops, like Ford, as part of the stalled Build Back Better bill, making the starting price of a Lightning, $27,500, an incredible deal. But the added incentive doesn’t really address the inevitability of autoworkers’ jobs becoming increasingly automated.
Only a fraction of Ford’s total U.S. workforce of around eighty-six thousand will work at the Rouge E.V. Center. The old Rouge employed a hundred thousand workers, and the gas-F-150 plant, across the tarmac, where a new truck rolls off the line every fifty-three seconds, employs four thousand workers. (Ford has announced plans to add nine hundred and fifty new jobs to keep up with demand for the Lightning and its hybrid F-150 model.) Williams, who gave President Biden a tour when Ford débuted the electric truck, last May, explained that computer vision enhances the visual inspection of the vehicles that humans conduct, but with greater objectivity. Cobots—collaborative robots—check all the wiring and the fluid connections before the cab and the bed go on the chassis.
The electrification of Ford’s fleet isn’t the most challenging task that the company faces. As Jim Farley explained after my Rouge tour, “This industry is overly focussed on the propulsion change. But the real change is that we are moving to a software-defined experience for our customers.” That experience will gradually replace what drivers do now, until Ford’s fleet becomes fully autonomous, at some point years from now. “Can we sleep in our cars?” Farley asked, in a way that suggested the answer will be yes. “Can we use them as business places, so we leave for work an hour later?” Again, yes. “Then the drive totally changes.”