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Redesigned Ford F-150 offers hands-free driving, hybrid option

5 min read

DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is striving to maintain its full-size pickup dominance by redesigning the F-150 to incorporate — and improve upon — some of the most popular features that rivals have added in unsuccessful bids to dethrone it.

The 14th-generation pickup, unveiled virtually Thursday evening, is expected to offer best-in-class towing, payload, torque and horsepower when it hits dealerships as soon as November. The pickup will include functional tailgate upgrades, similar to what General Motors introduced on the GMC Sierra in 2018. Ford is adding a larger center touch screen, just as Fiat Chrysler added to its Ram 1500 in 2018. And the automaker is hoping to preempt a growing list of electric vehicle startups — including one that unveiled a prototype hours before Ford’s reveal — looking for a slice of the profitable segment by offering a hybrid powertrain and mobile power generators across all trims.

The F-150, the highest-volume member of the industry’s bestselling vehicle line for 43 consecutive years, will come with the next-generation Sync 4 infotainment system that features over-the-air updates. It also is expected to be the first full-size truck to offer a hands-free driver-assist feature once Ford activates the necessary software in the third quarter of 2021.

“We see it as our duty to deliver not just what our customers want and need, but what they might have never thought possible,” Craig Schmatz, the F-150’s chief engineer, said in a statement.

The next-generation of Ford’s most popular product takes on added meaning during a pandemic that has hampered sales and cut into profits. Ford will look for the F-150 to carry an even larger share of its business moving forward as it slogs through a global restructuring.

Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for Edmunds, said the F-150 redesign marks a “pivotal moment” for the automaker.

“Ford may have more exciting launches with the Mustang Mach-E and Bronco on the horizon, but since the F-Series is what pays the bills, Ford needs it to succeed the most to get through this economic crisis and beyond,” she said in a statement. “Ford has been under intense scrutiny from Wall Street for a number of years, so the pressure is on [CEO] Jim Hackett and team to get this right and inspire investor confidence.”

From the outside, the 2021 F-150 doesn’t look drastically different from the outgoing model. Still, designers made a number of updates.

They widened its stance by pulling out the wheels three-quarters of an inch, raised the front fender and increased the tire diameter. The truck is 3 percent more aerodynamic than the 2020 version and will come with 11 grille options and 13 wheel options, ranging from 17 to 22 inches.

The biggest changes are inside.

Ford added a bigger center touch screen: a standard 8-inch screen replaces the 4.2-inch screen on the XL and XLT models, while a 12-inch screen is standard on higher trims.

The screen comes in a horizontal configuration, in contrast to the widely lauded vertical screen in the Ram 1500, because Ford says customers preferred it and also wanted to keep buttons and knobs underneath.

The cabin features optional “max recline” sleeper seats for both the driver and passenger in the Platinum, King Ranch and Limited models.

Ford is offering an optional flat work surface that allows owners to work on laptops, sign documents or eat while parked. The shifter folds down into the center console to enable the flat surface.

“We know many of our customers spend a large portion of their day in the trucks,” Schmatz said. “They want it to be both a productive workplace as well as a refuge.”

Ford also upgraded its tailgate to help customers work better. Two new side cleats come standard, and Ford is offering an optional “tailgate work surface” design that includes a flat area to rest a laptop and an integrated ruler, cupholder, pencil holder and phone or tablet holder.

The biggest change in the 2021 F-150 might be a new powertrain option: a 3.5-liter hybrid V-6. Ford calls it PowerBoost and hopes it can do for this truck what its EcoBoost engines have done for other vehicles in its lineup.

The powertrain, mated to a 10-speed transmission, includes a 35-kilowatt-hour electric motor near the engine and a 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery in the rear.

Ford officials said they expect the hybrid powertrain, available on all trim levels, could account for 10 percent of F-150 sales.

Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s head of product development and purchasing, told Automotive News that the automaker began experimenting with an F-150 hybrid in July 2011 and began testing them on-road in 2012. A 2016 focus group first alerted developers to the fact that customers wanted more than just improved fuel economy.

“We’ve learned from the prior introductions of EcoBoost engines and the aluminum body that truck customers are willing to embrace technology if it delivers tangible functional benefits without trade-offs,” he said. “We knew that if we introduced an F-150 hybrid, it had to be a no-compromise solution and would need to deliver on the ‘Built Ford Tough’ capability that our customers expect.”

The PowerBoost hybrid is a rear-wheel-drive-based system that also can be configured for four-wheel drive for customers who need to haul or tow heavy loads. It’s expected to get 700 miles on a tank of gas and deliver at least 12,000 pounds of maximum towing.

Ford also is adding mobile generators across the F-150 lineup. An available 2.0-kilowatt-output on-board generator with gasoline engines is enough to power heaters, TVs, blenders, minifridges or other accessories one might use for camping or at a tailgate, Ford said.

The hybrid pickup comes standard with a 2.4-kilowatt output generator — enough to power a jackhammer and compact cement mixer — that can be upgraded to a 7.2-kilowatt version.

In all instances, the power can be accessed through in-cabin outlets and up to four outlets in the bed.

Thai-Tang said that Ford discovered, through customer research, that many buyers would put auxiliary generators in their cargo boxes.

“These generators occupied valuable space, held only a few gallons of gasoline and could be loud during operation,” he said. “Pro Power Onboard eliminates the need to carry a portable generator because it’s now integrated with the truck.”

Thai-Tang said Ford prioritized putting a hands-free driver-assist system in its F-150 over other vehicles, such as its Lincoln luxury lineup, because pickup customers often drive long distances on highways.

The feature, also planned for the Mustang Mach-E, will use infrared cameras, including a driver-facing camera in the steering wheel, to monitor alertness. So long as the driver is paying attention, the system can be engaged for hands-free operation on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in all 50 states and Canada.

Ford officials said the system cannot be activated while an F-150 customer is towing anything, although that function could be added in later iterations.

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