Optimizing EV Platforms for Pickup Trucks

Ford stuck with a ladder frame for its electric F-150 Lightning while GM chose an all-new structure for Silverado EV that’s neither unibody nor body-on-frame.

Ghosted illustration of F-150 Lightning showing ladder frame and battery pack arrangement. (Ford)

Pickups are the industry’s most popular and profitable product because they offer individualized vehicles for nearly every customer and use case. American pickups wrote the book on mass customization long before the German luxury brands discovered carbon fiber armrests and color-matched seat stitching. Need a long-box diesel dually with 3.42 axles, full leather interior, set up for 5th-wheel towing? A short-bed, extended-cab work truck? Or the ubiquitous 4-door/short-bed/4x4 combo that dominates the light-truck landscape? Step right up for any configuration; the OEMs will build your truck.

Chalk that up to the pickup’s body-on-frame architecture. Its “old school” ladder frame supports the easy cab, bed, and driveline mix-n’-match that the truck market loves and expects. That proven platform approach, however, also drives nightmarish complexity in the assembly plant. Even with a focus in recent years on reducing build combinations and consolidating options, the hypothetical bills of material for F-Series, Ram and Silverado are staggering.

Myriad drivelines, frames, cabs, cargo beds, axle capacities, cooling systems, wheel-and-tire combos, towing packages, wiring harnesses, paint schemes, work/fleet models! Throw in scores of trim and accessory choices and the potential permutations of any given model can run into the hundreds of thousands (it was in the millions during the late 1990s). It also can make spec’ing out a new pickup daunting.

Electric propulsion, of course, offers new architecture solutions and reduced BoM. And therein lies a strategic question: What is the optimum structure for future electric pickup trucks that will best satisfy the segment’s diverse use cases? As 2022 unfolds, we see Ford with one approach on F-Series and GM with another for Silverado EV . Specifics regarding the electric Ram’s underpinnings are not yet public.

In developing the F-150 Lightning, Ford decided to stick with the familiar steel ladder frame, incorporating the battery pack and other EV hardware. This is the no-compromise, low-risk approach that still can easily deliver the lower-volume cab/ bed configurations that Ford-loyalist farmers, tradespeople and other practical truck owners demand (a Ford engineering source tells me that a dedicated EV architecture is under development for trucks).

Conversely, GM has taken the risky approach that I reckon may test the loyalty of some Chevy and GMC die-hards. Like its Hummer EV cousin, the electric Silverado uses an all-new architecture based on GM’s skateboard-influenced Ultium battery platform. “It’s not a unibody structure, and it’s not body-on-frame,” Silverado EV chief engineer Nicole Kraatz told me. “It’s... in between them,” she said. The overall design is not amenable to easy cab/bed mix n’ match. It means Silverado EV buyers, at least initially, can only get a 4-door cab and short bed. To mitigate this, the cab features a “midgate” that opens to allow long-but-narrow cargo to pass through, thus extending the small bed’s length.

It’s a configuration that my friend Dave, whose landscaping business rides exclusively on Chevies, says is a non-starter. “First, EV pickups can’t do the jobs I need them to do, like pushing snow for 10 hours without refueling, as my Duramax trucks can do,” he told me recently over a beer. “Now you’re saying if I wanted an electric truck, I can’t get a regular cab or extended cab…or longer beds!” I told Dave about the midgate compromise. He said it may be fine for carrying long lumber, but not for hauling his big spraying tanks and mowers. “Will I have to start driving Fords now?” Dave asked me with a smirk. He was only half joking.