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Out of Gas

Ford CEO Jim Farley Is the Biggest Loser of 2023

Sure, United Auto Workers handed his ass to him. But that’s only the beginning of Farley’s problems.

Jim Farley leans on a massive pickup truck while giving the camera a thumbs up.
Ford Motor Company’s chief executive officer Jim Farley poses next to the electric F-150 Lightning in 2021.

Jim Farley does a lot of complaining for a man who made $20 million last year. Seemingly immune to the copious amount of media training he must have received, the Ford CEO, in his frequent media appearances, has been awkward and whiny, like if Nathan Fielder was tasked with playing an aggrieved auto executive. The content he controls himself—on a YouTube channel with six subscribers—isn’t much different. A clip edited to evoke the manly bravado of the electric F-150, in which Farley is road-tripping, shows a stilted exchange with The Rock and a repair-shop employee asking Farley if he can work in the shade. “Yeah,” Farley responds.

“What a great trip it’s been,” Farley concludes. “My big takeaway is that we’re just in the first inning in this E.V. revolution and digital revolution with software, is that it’s actually a human opportunity.” With 48 views, it’s the channel’s most-watched content. Farley is a loser in a more literal sense, though. After fearmongering that the United Auto Workers’ demands of the Big Three automakers could cause Ford to go bankrupt, he conceded after a six-week strike to a 25 percent pay increase for employees over the next four years. Starting wages under the new contract—approved by UAW members in November—jumped from $18.04 to $30.35, and its terms will cover workers at planned Ford battery plants in Tennessee and Michigan. While a loss for Farley, the outcome was considered a big victory for both labor and climate advocates excited to see strike action secure better wages and working conditions for workers building electric vehicles.

When it comes to the E.V. transition, though, Ford seems to be losing in even more profound ways. In December, the carmaker slashed its 2024 production schedule for the Lightning F-150 in half, and now it aims to manufacture 1,600 per week in its Dearborn factory. It’ll hold off on $12 billion of spending on E.V.s as Ford expects its arm that deals with electric vehicles, Model E, to lose around $4.5 billion this year. The company has blamed this poor performance on sluggish demand, a lack of charging infrastructure, and falling prices for electric vehicles. “There are plenty of customers” for E.V.s, Farley has argued. “The issue is the price they’re willing to pay has come down.”

But the grim picture Ford and Farley paint about the market for E.V.s in the United States looks a lot rosier under the microscope. Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that E.V. sales in the U.S. are expected to have risen by 50 percent this year. Ford isn’t exactly a marginal player in the electric car space. It was the second-biggest seller of new E.V.s in the third quarter of 2023, accounting for 7.1 percent of the domestic market. But it’s being handily outdone by Tesla’s commanding 54.5 percent share, and E.V.s still account for just 4.4 percent of Ford sales domestically. Globally, legacy automakers are struggling to compete with both Tesla and other electric-only automakers like BYD and Li Auto, which now account for 7 percent of the global vehicle market—up from just 1 percent in 2020, BloombergNEF reports.

Ford and other legacy U.S. automakers mostly have themselves to blame for their struggles with going electric. As I wrote earlier this year, the Big Three have spent decades specializing in hulking SUVs and trucks so as to take advantage of the Nixon-era exemption from fuel efficiency standards that large vehicles still enjoy and have lobbied to keep. Automakers and the trade associations they’re members of have consistently lobbied to keep policymakers from implementing the kinds of emissions-reduction rules that drove European automakers to start integrating E.V.s much earlier. Earlier gains in fuel efficiency plateaued thanks to the public policy–aided rise of the SUV, which began in earnest in the 1980s; the efficiency of Ford-made cars improved by just 0.4 miles per gallon between 1985 and 2010. The Big Three’s hyperfocus on big cars became a problem in 2008, when the financial crisis and high oil prices spurred customers to seek out more fuel-efficient models offered by foreign automakers. After the auto industry bailout—which Ford avoided—U.S. automakers doubled down on building slick armored tanks for soccer moms and suburban dads. In 2021, the International Energy Agency found that the average new light-duty vehicle sold in the U.S. consumed 20 percent more fuel and was 20 percent heavier than the global average.

Ford is best at making big cars it can sell for a lot of money. That’s a problem when it comes to E.V.s. Selling those massive models to the public has historically meant convincing customers to pay a lot more for features they don’t need to run to the grocery store or pick up the kids from school. The company’s strategy for integrating more electric cars into its lineup is to “go after customers we know really well,” Farley said on a recent earnings call: those who buy its full-size trucks, pickups, and vans. Drivers already paying a premium for hyped-up hauling and safety features may not be willing to pay even more for the electric version of those same big, pricey cars. To make matters worse, Ford expects that its only entry on this year’s list of top-selling E.V.s (the Mustang Mach-E) will no longer be eligible for the federal tax incentives starting next year.

Buyers might also just want something else. The Tesla Model Y is now the second-bestselling car in the U.S. overall, after the (gas-powered) Ford F-150. And while Big Three automakers’ top overall sellers are similarly sized big trucks, top-selling E.V.s trend toward smaller SUVs and the sedans and hatchbacks that Ford has fully abandoned.

It’s also not impossible to imagine that some segment of the customer base for cars sold as monuments to rural masculinity are resistant to buying cars Republicans have smeared as overpriced toys for coastal elites.

Mostly, though, Ford’s bigger-is-better ethos is a problem for the rest of us. In contrast to all the doom and gloom in the business press, electric vehicle sales are indeed picking up. Yet E.V.s still account for just 8.8 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. Transportation is still the country’s single biggest greenhouse gas–emitting sector, and its mass transit networks remain embarrassingly slow, meager, and underfunded. Although the life-cycle emissions and extractive footprint of electric vehicles are still far lower than their gas-powered counterparts’, subbing all the trucks and SUVs on the road out for E.V. models would still require an enormous amount of critical minerals like lithium and cobalt, doubling down on miserable sprawl and posing continued dangers to pedestrians and bikers.

During the UAW strike this fall, Farley warned that union demands threatened “a sustainable future” and could force the company to scrap its investments in E.V.s and “choose between going out of business and rewarding our workers.” He’s already scaling back Ford’s electrification ambitions—not because workers got too greedy but because the bosses always have been. The Big Three might consequently already be too late to become top E.V. producers. A “sustainable future,” though, can certainly move forward without them. Either Ford can go electric or other companies will eat up their market share over time; ideally, there will be many fewer cars on the road overall as mass transit expands. Decarbonization, in other words, could turn Jim Farley into an even bigger loser.