Robert Bollinger had big plans for his B1 and B2 electric trucks before COVID-19 changed the world.
The 53-year-old former beauty executive was finalizing plans for a national tour to show off his boxy, utilitarian $125,000 vehicles to truck loyalists before the pandemic struck. The road show was canceled but the work did not stop: Bollinger and his crew of 36 have spent the ensuing weeks and months perfecting the engineering and design of their all-terrain, hand-built Class 3 trucks, which can travel up to 200 miles on a full charge using a 120-kWh battery pack and produce 614 horsepower and 668 lb.-ft of torque.
Bollinger has poured tens of millions of dollars of his own money into his eponymous start-up, convinced that Americans would swap their gas-guzzling pickup trucks for battery-powered ones. Without the technical know-how or automotive industry experience, he relocated his 5-year-old business from the Catskills to Detroit to hire engineers, pitching his dream that electric trucks could offer the same ruggedness, excitement and off-roading capabilities that have always appealed to Americans.
“Every bit of starting this company has been extremely challenging,” he told ABC News by phone from Michigan. “The odds are crazy stacked against us. The No. 1 thing when I started this is that if we get across the finish line, we can’t stop. Let’s make something completely different than anyone else.”
A prototype of the Bollinger B1, the company’s sport utility truck, debuted in 2017. The B2, a pickup with a “long bed mullet haircut” that’s capable of carrying 16-foot cargo through a patented full-length pass-through, followed in 2019. Bollinger said the company will build 1,000 units of both trucks early next year with deliveries scheduled for the second half of 2021. Production will then increase to 2,000 and 3,000 units and the company has received nearly 800 deposits so far from interested buyers. The goal was not to mass market these trucks, Bollinger explained.
“I didn’t want to be on the road constantly searching for investors and raising billions of dollars,” he said. “We are realistic about our investor needs and growth. We don’t have any accountants on the team. It’s not about losing money to get market share. If we stay small forever that’s fine with me.”
More than 3.1 million trucks were sold in the U.S. in 2019, accounting for 18.3% of the automotive market and outselling passenger sedans, according to Kelley Blue Book data.
Eco-conscious consumers searching for a hybrid or PHEV (plug-in hybrid) truck are out of luck; the 2020 RAM 1500 may be the closest product on the market to a traditional hybrid with its eTorque Hybrid Technology.
That all changes in 2021 when a proliferation of electric trucks hits showrooms: Tesla’s blocky Cybertruck, General Motors’ revamped Hummer, Rivian’s R1T and Lordstown Motors’ Endurance pickup. Ford has even teased an electric version of its best-selling F-150 pickup, with a likely launch in 2022.
The push for electric trucks has lagged compared to sedans and SUVs, according to Karl Brauer, a longtime industry analyst and former executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. He’s not convinced truck owners are ready for the foreordained electric insurgency.
“There’s still not a proven market for these,” Brauer told ABC News. “Every electric vehicle that has come out has sold less than estimates or what automakers had hoped for with the exception of Tesla. Now a bunch of people are putting a bunch of money in trucks and it may not necessarily be any different.”
The popularity of electric trucks also hinges on whether they can actually perform the gritty, prosaic tasks that are expected of them.
“Loading them up, moving and hauling things around — that all cuts the range,” Brauer said. “Trucks are seen as these adventure vehicles. But how easy will it be to go out in the middle nowhere and have access to a high charging system?”
He added, “Most traditional truck buyers are not first in line to consider an electric truck.”
Price will also factor into consumers’ decision to buy a “green” truck versus its less fuel efficient sibling. Alex Schmidt, an automotive analyst at Accenture, expects a markup of 30% to 50% on these vehicles.
“The price depends mainly on the battery size … and due to still very high battery prices, it could be challenging to turn this segment into a standalone profitable business,” he told ABC News. “I doubt that every carmaker will be capable of keeping up in this race. It is pretty likely that we will see consolidation up to a certain degree where certain players will either be acquired or merged or even disappear.”
According to a recent survey from CarGurus, an automotive research and shopping website, 33% of current truck owners say they will “probably/definitely” own an electric pickup truck in the next 10 years. Twenty-two percent expect to own one in the next five years.
In June, the California Air Resources Board unanimously passed a landmark rule requiring that half of all trucks sold in the state by 2035 are zero-emission. The rule applies to big rigs, box trucks and delivery vans.
GM was set to reveal its modern Hummer truck in May until the coronavirus delayed the unveiling to later this year. The 1,000 hp Hummer will be GM’s first electric vehicle to be manufactured with the company’s new Ultium batteries. The Detroit carmaker partnered with South Korea’s LG Chem to mass-produce battery cells for future battery-electric vehicles at a state-of-the art plant near Lordstown, Ohio, an investment totaling $2.3 billion. The Hummer and Cruise Origin, an electric, self-driving vehicle, will be assembled at GM’s $2.2 billion Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
“This is not something we’re dabbling in — we’re committed to electric vehicles. We believe this is the future of GM and the industry,” Ken Morris, vice president of autonomous and electric vehicle programs at GM, told ABC News.
Morris said a broad range of customers — early adopters of tech and off-road enthusiasts — have already reached out about the upcoming Hummer, which he called “quilt free — zero gas, zero emissions.”
But Morris is well aware that range and price will determine if an electric truck succeeds or fails. According to his research, consumers expect a minimum of 300 miles of range per charge.
“We do get scale, we have the manufacturing benefits … and we’re trying to bring down the cost of the propulsion system,” he said. “Customers are willing to pay a little bit of a premium for an electric vehicle but not very much.”
Morris pointed out that GM decided against cutting spending or activity around its electrification efforts as sales have sputtered. The company is still planning on selling a million EVs in North America and China by 2025.
Electric trucks “have to be a part of our wide-ranging portfolio,” he said. “We’re offering what people want to buy.”
Bollinger said the industry supporting electrification has changed so dramatically since he first envisaged the B1.
“With the big companies finally getting into the game, vendors in Detroit finally got the wake-up about going electric,” he said. “It’s come a long way in just five years. In another five years, it will be a completely new world.”