The Engineer Who Made Electric Vehicles Palatable for the Pickup-Truck Set

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When Linda Zhang became chief engineer for Ford’s F-150 Lightning three years ago, she took on what some might consider an all but impossible job. In relatively short order, she had to roll out a reasonably priced electric version of the most popular vehicle in the U.S., while skirting the sensibilities of F-150 loyalists whose ethos might be summed up in country-rap artist Breland’s popular refrain: “Don’t touch my truck.” But Zhang, who’s been an engineer at Ford for 25 years, “was actually super excited about it,” she says. “The prospect of being able to really go down more technologically advanced routes and providing some shock and awe to our customers … in a good way.”

Linda Zhang Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Jingyu Lin for TIME

Read more: The Biden Administration Is Trying to Kickstart the Great American Electric Vehicle Race

To meet its net-zero-emissions goals under the Paris Agreement, the U.S. needs to almost completely phase out gasoline-powered vehicles by 2050. U.S. electric vehicles (EVs) went from next to 0% of the new-car market in 2010 to 2% in 2020, but the switchover is not progressing nearly fast enough; the market is on pace to be only 60% electric by the target year. New federal policies could accelerate the electrification process, but carmakers will also have to convince more drivers that EVs—even trucks—are just as good, if not better, than the gasoline vehicles they’re used to. “There was a lot of skepticism around whether EV trucks can really be tough,” Zhang says. For Ford’s F-150 Lightning, overcoming that skepticism meant not only surpassing the gasoline variant’s torque and acceleration stats, but also adding extra capabilities, like the $40,000-and-up Lightning’s ability to power an owner’s entire home during a power outage.

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Some truck fans might have had some skepticism about Zhang herself—standing 5 ft. 3 in., the Chinese American engineer might not be the first person many pickup owners would imagine as the mastermind behind their hulking two-ton F-150 trucks. But Zhang’s automotive roots go deep—her father, a Chinese immigrant who brought her to the States as a child, researched transmissions for Ford. Zhang herself has made it her business to challenge all kinds of expectations, from what will power a new generation of American vehicles to who will design them. And in breaking down one of those major preconceptions—that an electric truck would never be able to step into a niche long occupied by gas guzzlers—Zhang might have pulled off the impossible. After thousands of hours of development and testing, Ford counts U.S. President Joe Biden among those impressed by Zhang’s work. “This sucker’s quick,” he said after a May test drive. As of October, Ford has tallied 150,000 F-150 Lightning reservations from pickup fans around the country ready to drop gasoline for good when deliveries begin in spring 2022. “Those,” says Zhang, “are hearts and minds that we’ve been able to move, culturally, toward this EV shift.”

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