If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own – Henry Ford (attributed )
Existing carbon intensive companies have a tricky balancing act to perform as society pivots to a net-zero world.
The oil and gas, steel, automotive, aerospace, cement, shipping, and industrial chemicals industries all own assets or produce products that emit high levels of carbon and underpin their existing revenues. Transitioning to net zero will be a careful balancing act for these industries, as they must maintain revenue and liquidity, whilst not missing the boat and being left holding onto worthless assets.
For many climate campaigners empathising with that challenge can be difficult, especially in the face of devastating climate projections. Armed with the facts surrounding sea level rises, wildfires, ocean acidification, permafrost thawing, drought, and biodiversity collapse it is only natural to reach for the panic button and try to shut down all carbon emitting activity immediately.
However, this radical reaction would ultimately be a pyrrhic victory. It would certainly achieve zero carbon emissions (a step beyond net-zero), but create a world few people would want to live in. So how do we transition to net zero quickly whilst preserving the hard fought gains of the industrial revolution?
Ultimately by supporting those firms with the skills, experience, and capital to push for net-zero ‘as quickly as possible’.
High emission companies view the world slightly differently to environmentalists and green finance professionals. Fundamentally, the people who run these companies have different and competing demands. That said (ignoring out-and-out climate deniers) most still realise that the science is only pointing in one direction and is an existential threat to them and their businesses. A little empathy can go a long way to helping these emitters change their ways.
None demonstrate these differing challenges (and opportunities) more than Ford’s F-150 pickup truck.
The Ford F-150
The Ford F-150 is the foundation of the F-Series family of pickup trucks from the Ford Motor Company. Whilst in Europe Ford is known for its economical everyday run-arounds, in the US the F-Series underpins the ‘Built Ford Tough’ brand. It is pure, dirty, unashamed Americana and epitomises the challenge of decarbonising the United States’ 3 millions pickups sold each year .
Even so, the facts surrounding the Ford F-Series are fascinating:
- The Ford F-series has been the best selling vehicle in the US every year since 1981 .
- 900,000 F-series vehicles were produced each year in 2018 and 2019 . That’s 2,400 everyday! Nose to tail this many trucks would stretch 8.6 miles, which is vertically higher than Mount Everest and Mont Blanc combined!
- In 2019 Ford received $42bn in revenue from the F-150 alone . Viewed as a country, the revenue from the F-series would be approximately two times as wealthy as Iceland
- Ford supposedly makes $10,000 profit on each vehicle sold  and supports 500,000 jobs in the US 
In 2019, Ford’s total revenue was $156bn  and therefore this one product line supports nearly one third of the Ford Motor Company’s global revenue. It is widely speculated that the F-150 is an even larger slice of their profits since several of their sedan vehicle lines run at a loss .
Furthermore, all that positive cash flow will undoubtedly help manage Ford’s huge debt burden. At $160bn Ford has the highest debt ratio of the ‘Big Three’ US automakers and speculation is rife over whether this debt is sustainable or not [7, 8, 9]. But that cash flow will also allow it to invest the billions needed in new battery facilities and EV product lines .
So the F-150 matters to Ford. Big time.
The Electric F-150
With the transition to EVs well underway Ford has been forced like all other manufacturers to transition. It’s first EV, the Mustang Mach-E, was released in late 2019 and Ford aims for 40% of its global sales to be EVs by 2030 . So it has started on the EV journey.
But the US pickup market has been relatively shielded from the EV revolution. Pickup trucks’ large mass and high aerodynamic drag meant that there were easier vehicle types to convert to EVs first. But being such a large market (as well as a source of carbon dioxide) meant that entrepreneurs and engineers would turn to the pickup market eventually. Add to that world governments and individual states starting to ban gasoline and diesel vehicles and the risks to Ford’s golden goose are mounting.
As of June 2021 there are no EV pickups available to take delivery of. However, there are plenty to reserve for delivery from late 2021 onwards. From the newbies there is the space-aged Tesla Cybertruck, the Rivian R1T and R1S and Lordstown Motor’s Endurance workhorse. And from GM there is the high-end Hummer EV.
In May 2021 Ford unveiled its answer to these potential usurpers, the F-150 Lightning EV. Starting from just under $40,000  the F-150 Lightning will be on dealer forecourts in mid-2022 and forms a critical part of their $22bn EV investment plan. Ford claims it will have a lower total cost of ownership than the current F-150, be able to tow 10,000 pounds and act as a mobile power station, providing electrical power to worksites and homes if required.
Commercial Challenges vs Climate Crisis
From a climate perspective, however, the simplistic answer would be to just cut the current F-Series product line up now and force Ford’s legions of brand loyal customers into new pickup EVs. But we all know that humans do not behave that way. Those pickup truck drivers would go out and buy another cheap gasoline pickup. And even if they did want a pickup EV, the market (and supply chains) are way too immature to offset the 900,000 F-150 produced each year – let alone the 3 million trucks sold in 2019 .
So the bosses at Ford have got a challenge on their hands, they need to simultaneously:
- Maintain current product lines to generate cash
- Invest in new (EV) product lines
- Manage Ford’s existing debts and liabilities
- Maintain good relationships with shareholders, customers, suppliers, and employees
But Ford is not starting completely afresh. They have a proven formula for creating desirable trucks over the past 40 years. They also have in-house expertise for financing and marketing the F-Series, and crucially, the knowhow to produce well-priced vehicles that customers want. Furthermore, the F-Series has a loyal fanbase of ready made customers, so once their in-house engineering expertise can start cranking out a great product they can be confident that there will be buyers (over 100,000 people reserved the F-150 Lightning in the weeks following the launch ).
Conclusion – Balance of Empathy to Drive Faster Action
Ultimately from a climate and green finance perspective, the transition to the F-150 Lightning EV needs to happen ‘as quickly as possible’ and any actions that facilitate that must be rewarded.
But what is ‘as quickly as possible’? That is a key area where green finance can direct its energy in realising that there is a balance to be struck between the immediate commercial challenges facing Ford’s leadership and driving hard for the EV transition.
If Ford can be shown to be moving ‘as quickly as possible’ over EVs then does that constitute a green investment – even if they are still producing ICE pickups? Or could green finance provide Ford with cheaper debt to help manage their historic debts, so long as they are meeting or exceeding their stated carbon emission or EV targets?
Ford has the technical expertise, managerial expertise, brand loyalty, economies of scale, and sales infrastructure to make this transition. The senior management knows that they have to move fast to protect their pickup revenues. Because otherwise someone is going to get their first. Rivian, GM, Lordstown, Ram, Ford, Toyota, or Tesla all want to get their hands on that $42bn of revenue.
Ford also comes with a lot of baggage. Baggage that will quickly become a stranded asset unless Ford invests now, but baggage that is ultimately helping them to keep afloat as a company: servicing existing debts and providing cash to invest in EVs.
Ultimately we need the F-150 Lightning EV to be successful and soon. How can this change be facilitated as quickly as possible?
- Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1936
- Most Popular Cars, Edumnds, 2020
- Phoebe Wall Howard, Ford F-Series pickup trucks second only to iPhone in sales. Here’s why that’s important, Detroit Free Press, 2020
- The Conversation, How the Ford F-150 Became the King of Cars, 2018
- The Drive, Here’s Why the 2021 Ford F-150 Is Such A Huge Deal, 2020
- Ford – Statistics & Facts, Statista, 2021
- Stock Dividend Screener, Is Ford’s $160 Billion Debt A Cause For Concern?, 2021
- Yahoo Finance, What Does General Motors Debt Look Like?, 2021
- FCA Group, 2020
- Michael Wayland, Ford ups EV investments, targets 40% electric car sales by 2030 under latest turnaround plan, 2021
- FT, Ford aims to make electric vehicles 40% of global sales by 2030
- Investors Business Daily, Ford Stock F-150 Lightning Electric Truck Unveiling, 2021
- Car Pro USA, America’s Best Selling Trucks, 2019
- Future Car, Ford Passes 100,000 Reservations for 2022 F-150 Lightning, 2021
- The News Wheel, Ford F-Series Made $42 Billion in Revenue in 2019, 2020
- Fox Business, Why The Ford F-150 is a Profit Machine, 2018