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Ford delays launch of new electric vehicles again, showing legacy automakers need to adopt a startup mindset

Ford announced Thursday it would delay production of two electric vehicles, a next-generation electric pickup truck and a three-row electric SUV. The two ships are currently expected to arrive in 2026 and 2027, delayed by one and two years respectively. Instead, the automaker will introduce hybrids to its U.S. lineup.

Ford’s CEO has been signaling the delay for months. Last fall, it delayed a $12 billion investment plan. Then on an earnings call in February, CEO Jim Farley said: “Hybrid vehicles will play an increasingly important role in the transformation of our industry and are here to stay in the long term. .” That’s the kind of sober talk shareholders like to hear.

Wall Street is likely to cheer the move, especially after Toyota reported a 22% year-over-year increase in U.S. sales due to strong demand for hybrid vehicles. Ford’s shift appears to be about increasing cash flow and short-term profits, which seems logical for a company of this size, especially in uncertain times.

But here’s the thing: Ford is unique among established automakers in that it does best when it thinks like a startup, and it seems to have taken that to heart of late despite delays in electric vehicles. More success can be achieved by shaping the market than by responding to it.

Most recently, this entrepreneurial mentality was exemplified by Ford’s all-electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E. When electric cars began to take shape nearly a decade ago, the original plan was to build a perfectly sensible crossover powered by an electric motor up front. The design was aerodynamic but so bland that one of the company’s exterior designers questioned who would buy it. Judging from the appearance of the proposed design, these concerns are understandable.

But then-CEO Jim Hackett scrapped the plan and gave the team two years to come up with something new. The result is a crossover that has helped Ford rank second in U.S. electric vehicle sales for several quarters.

The Mustang Mach-E didn’t happen by accident. Ford has a track record of doing magic. In the 1980s, when U.S. automakers were under attack from Japanese imports, Ford ditched the boxy, bulky design and launched the Taurus, which went on sale in late 1985. This stylish, spacious and affordable vehicle was unlike anything American consumers had ever seen, creating an immediate sensation. Ford sold 1 million cars in its first three years, a success that may have saved the company from bankruptcy.

Five years later, Ford pivoted again and launched the Explorer. SUVs were nothing new, but at the time most were two-door models focused on practical qualities like towing and off-roading. Cars remain the primary choice for consumers. But by adding a rear door and a host of creature comforts, Ford transformed the SUV into a family-friendly truck. It might have cannibalized sales of the company’s cars, but the decision to launch the Explorer proved prescient: Not only did it provide the company with another decade of growth, it also predicted a world in which SUVs would dominate the market.

There are other examples: Ford’s fast and lean approach to developing the original Mustang allowed it to define an entirely new category of fast, expensive “pony cars.” It did the same thing after World War II, producing what is now known as the “49 Ford,” a car that defied styling convention and returned the automaker to the sales lead. Don’t forget the original Ford assembly line, which, while not a product, was definitely a product of entrepreneurial thinking.

Farley faces a different challenge today. His predecessor essentially mixed and matched designs, platforms and manufacturing technologies, while the heart of each car, the engine, remained largely unchanged. Electric cars challenge manufacturers to start from scratch, or at least rip out that heart without losing the foundation that made the original car so great.

Ford excels at these tasks: Most people agree that the Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning are not only great electric cars, but great vehicles overall.

Still, they weren’t the huge success Ford expected. Partly that’s because they’re so expensive – price cuts have proven that demand for them still exists – but also because the charging infrastructure to support them remains underdeveloped. If charging is preventing Ford from selling more electric cars, then maybe it needs to address the issue head on. If Ford can’t price its electric vehicles competitively and still make a profit, then Ford may need to find a cheaper way to produce them.

The company has already started down this path, forming a skunkworks group led by former Tesla executive Alan Clark to develop low-cost electric vehicles. If the team succeeds in bringing the product to market, some of Ford’s entrepreneurial spirit may still be there.

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