America's pickup truck gets a plug

Ford F-150 and electric charging
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This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.  

Few things are as quintessentially American as the Ford F-150 pick up truck. It's the vehicle of choice not only for companies that need to haul stuff but also suburban families that just want to be able to haul stuff if they want. And unfortunately, the best-selling vehicle in the United States since the Reagan administration is also a classic gas-guzzler. 

But here's a fun fact that many don't know: There's already a plug-in hybrid electric version of the F-150 out there that can slash fuel use by a third. And no, it's not in Ford's official lineup (although the automaker has said it plans to launch a hybrid plugless F-150 in 2020 that can help keep tailgaters' beers cold).

The plug-in model is made by a decade-old Boston-based company called XL, which has designed a power train that can electrify that truck and others (as well as vans) for company and city fleets. The company — founded by MIT alumni and backed by IKEA and the venture arm of Exelon — started off by selling strictly hybrid versions of vehicles (with no plug and an engine) to big companies such as Coca-Cola and cities such as Boston that wanted to cut fuel use by 20 percent.

Last year, the company (formerly called XL Hybrid) dropped the "Hybrid" from its name and started selling the plug-in hybrid F-150, which can reduce fuel use by 33 percent. The cost of batteries finally started to drop enough that it made sense to start selling a plug-in version, says CEO and founder Tod Hynes. 

It appears to be taking off. The city of Palo Alto and utilities Tacoma Public Utility and Clark Public Utilities are customers, and Hynes says XL as a company doubled in growth last year and expects to again this year. "The whole industry really started picking up in 2018, though it's still early days," Hynes says. 

Electrifying commercial and municipal fleets is a growing trend. Companies such as IKEA and UPS are committing to convert part of their fleets to electric to save on fuel costs and meet sustainability goals. Meanwhile, a new law dictates that municipal transportation agencies in California have to start converting transit buses to zero emissions over the next decade. 

A company such as XL — which got into the market early and has sold "thousands of units" — is well-positioned to capitalize on a coming boom in electrifying vehicles class 2 to 6. "Whether it's 2019, 2020 or 2021, it's sooner than later at this point," Hynes says. 

If the market gets really substantial one day, the OEMs could wake up to it and just launch their own versions. But it'll probably be quite a while before that happens. "Our biggest competitor right now is the status quo" of diesel and gasoline, Hynes says. 

If you want to go beyond the status quo in 2019 (sorry for that segue), make sure to follow what we're up to at GreenBiz and check out the developing programs for our upcoming events: GreenBiz Forum 19 (for sustainability execs), Circularity 19 (a new event on the circular economy) and VERGE 19, our blockbuster tech meets sustainability conference.