By Brian C. Black
When President Joe Biden took Ford’s /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F -1.63% electric F-150 Lightning pickup for a test drive in Dearborn, Mich., in May, the event was more than a White House photo op. It marked a new phase in an accelerating shift from gas-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles, or EVs.
In recent months, global auto manufacturers have released plans to electrify their vehicle fleets by 2030 or 2035 , setting up a race to see who can most quickly shift entirely away from producing vehicles powered by gasoline .
Like Biden, former President Donald Trump promised to create jobs in the auto industry . But Trump sought to do it by perpetuating a fossil-fueled system that is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions . Auto makers benefited from some Trump policies in the short term, including the rollback of fuel economy standards . Now, however, they seem to be embracing the challenge of competing globally in a climate-constrained future.
As an environmental historian , I see this moment as pivotal because unlike EVs from manufacturers such as Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM -0.36% or Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +1.75% , the electric F-150 does not entirely rely on green consumer choice. It places the electric vehicle transition squarely in the hands of mass-market consumers who don’t choose vehicles based on environmental considerations, and who are buying far more light trucks—pickups, sport-utility vehicles and minivans—than cars today.
The century of gasoline
America’s 20th-century affair with gas-powered cars was not inevitable. From 1890 through about 1915, vehicles powered by horses, coal, electric batteries and gasoline jockeyed for position on U.S. streets. And electric-powered vehicles had some clear advantages. Many consumers feared that gas-powered cars were prone to explode, and there was no nationwide fueling infrastructure.
But World War I combined with a moment of technological convergence that favored the internal combustion engine. Massive new petroleum discoveries in Texas, and later in the Middle East, produced a glut of oil, just as electric lighting replaced kerosene lamps.
In 1919, Capt. Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a small convoy that crossed the U.S. in gas-powered military vehicles to test Army mobility. It took them 62 days—clear evidence that modern vehicles required better roads .
By World War II, gasoline-powered personal transportation and road-building to support it had become planks of American economic growth. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower furthered that commitment with the construction of the most extensive system of highways the world had ever seen.
Car culture and the pickup truck
Americans’ particular contribution to 20th-century transportation patterns was making automobiles part of a competitive consumer marketplace. Starting in the 1950s, a complex economy of easy financing and advertising drove consumers to buy new and buy often. Every aspect of a car was a potential marketing point, from chrome styling to hemi-powered hot rod engines and more modern options like remote starting and rear-seat theaters .
Another uniquely American marketing achievement was framing trucks—utilitarian vehicles designed for work—as rides that could also serve consumers. Advertisers used themes of grit and power to sell trucks, depicted in the muddy expanses of Western landscapes, to suburban drivers.
Federal fuel-efficiency standards enacted in 1978 unintentionally reinforced the idea of trucks as a consumer product . These Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards classified pickups as “light trucks,” along with sport-utility vehicles and minivans, and set separate fuel-efficiency standards for them.
By the year 2000, pickup trucks were U.S. auto makers’ most profitable models , and manufacturers were looking for ways to make these vehicles more powerful and luxurious . Ford’s F-150 became the bestselling vehicle in the nation in 1982 and held that spot for the next four decades.