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Will electric pickup trucks get rural America to switch from gas to electric?


The idea of buying an electric vehicle is gaining momentum around the country, but it's mostly about sedans and hatchbacks, and those aren't necessarily the most popular choice in rural America, where the pickup is king. The startup Rivian has been making plug-in trucks since September, and now the big automakers are entering the arena. Ford's F-150 Lightning comes out this spring. Chevy and GMC also have their own electric trucks in the works. As Elizabeth Rembert of Nebraska Public Media reports, the electric pickup may be what helps rural America embrace more green vehicles.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: Kent Urwiller drives a Tesla around rural Nebraska. He says it's a real conversation starter, especially for the crowd at the local convenience store, where trucks usually fill the parking lot.

KENT URWILLER: There was a bunch of old farmers in there, and one of them was like, I might think about getting one of those if I can get a pickup. And then another one was like, no way in hell i'm getting one of those. And I was like, it is really nice. And they asked me if I did it just to go green, and I'm like, no, I actually got it just because I wanted to try something different.

REMBERT: Urwiller himself is interested in the electric pickup. He's a Chevy enthusiast, proud of his pristine 1984 Chevy Silverado. He's looking at the Ford e-truck to see if it would work for the fleet of pickups he has at his internet service company.

URWILLER: Our guys usually go, like, less than 150 miles a day. And we have a fuel barrel out here on our property, and we are filling it once every 8 to 10 days.

REMBERT: Getting away from gas is a big plus for rural drivers as fuel costs spike. They quickly add up when you have to trek long distances to grocery stores or schools. And Ford is trying to convince customers it has an electric vehicle that can handle life in the country. Ford claims its truck has a driving range of up to 320 miles and can tow 10,000 pounds. You can plug tools into it, and it can power a house for up to three days. Larry Lynch lives in Michigan and runs a YouTube account with videos about electric vehicles. He signed up for the truck and says he's been surprised by the buzz an electric pickup is generating among rural drivers.

LARRY LYNCH: I get half the people who are, like, just hardcore truck, rural truck guys who are just excited for this. I didn't think traditional truck people would be so interested as they are.

REMBERT: Brad Brodine farms in Nebraska and says technology has been good for agriculture. After all, he's now using huge, sophisticated tractors and harvesters after growing up watching his dad plow behind a horse.

BRAD BRODINE: Farmers kind of sit back, and we want to make sure things are going to work because everything's expensive. We don't mind trying new things. You know, if we think it's going to work, we're pretty excited about it because innovation has been a good thing in agriculture.

REMBERT: John Murphy follows the auto industry for Bank of America and says rural drivers are key to EVs catching on. He says all of the electric truck options could bring a transformation to rural America.

JOHN MURPHY: Electric pickups may drive the real tipping point for electric vehicles, meaning your mainstream Midwestern truck buyer may join the forces of the Teslas on the coast to really start tipping the scale.

REMBERT: Wanda Young is a chief marketing officer at Ford. She says the automaker knew it needed to get the Lightning right for old-school drivers who identify so strongly with their trucks.

WANDA YOUNG: You cannot separate a farmer from their truck. You know, it's just like their favorite pair of jeans. We get to see so many of our customers who are coming in, and they're from all different kinds of vocations, from plumbers to landscapers to electricians. And they are talking about how to make this transition to electric.

REMBERT: Even if rural drivers take their time before embracing electric, it does seem the demand for an electric truck may already be there. Ford has already increased its production capacity to meet demand, and about 75% of the people who signed up for the F-150 Lightning so far are new to Ford, suggesting they're not trading in their old gas F-150s just yet. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert in Lincoln, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert