By Ben Klayman
(Reuters) - Tesla Inc <TSLA.O> Chief Executive Elon Musk has talked for years about building an electric pickup truck that would threaten the heart of the Detroit automakers' profits, and on Thursday he will finally take the wraps off the so-called cyberpunk truck.
Analysts expect the Tesla pickup, which Musk has said would combine the performance of a Porsche 911 sports car with the functionality of Ford Motor Co's <F.N> industry-leading F-150 full-size truck, to debut in late 2021 or early 2022 with a starting price of under $50,000.
"Making an electric pickup truck that sells in the same price range as an F-150 and making it profitable will be tough," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at Auto Forecast Solutions.
As Musk pushes to take a bite of Detroit's profits, Ford and larger rival General Motors Co <GM.N> are gearing up to challenge Tesla more directly with new offerings like the Ford Mustang Mach E electric SUV as well as electric pickups.
Electric pickups and SUVs - the heart of the U.S. market - could help Ford and GM generate the significant EV sales they will need to meet tougher emission standards and EV mandates in California and other states. The Trump administration is moving to roll back those standards, but electric trucks are a hedge if California prevails.
Pricier trucks also offer carmakers a better chance to generate profit from their electric battery investments, Fiorani said.
The pickup's introduction will shift Tesla more toward trucks and SUVs, where Detroit's automakers get most of their profits. Tesla has so far sold mostly Model S and Model 3 sedans, but also offers the Model X SUV and starting next year the Model Y compact SUV.
Tesla officials declined to comment ahead of the truck's reveal on Thursday in Los Angeles.
A focus on the high-performance end of the market is only natural given the success of Ford's 450-horsepower F-150 Raptor truck, which launched in 2009 and whose sales have since risen annually, according to Ford spokesman Mike Levine.
While Ford does not disclose Raptor sales, Levine said annual demand is well above 19,000 vehicles and the No. 2 U.S. automaker has never had to offer incentives on the model, which costs in the high $60,000 range. Ford also offers the more expensive F-150 Limited, its most powerful and luxurious pickup.
'ARMORED PERSONNEL CARRIER'
Demand for full-size electric pickup trucks in the near term may not be huge, however.
Industry tracking firm IHS Markit estimates the electric truck segment - both full- and mid-sized models - will account for about 75,000 sales in 2026, compared with an expected 3 million light trucks overall. The Tesla truck is not part of that estimate given its uncertain timing.
Musk in October described the Tesla pickup as "closer to an armoured personnel carrier from the future." Deutsche Bank analyst Emmanuel Rosner said such a design carries the risk of not appealing to traditional truck buyers and consigning Tesla's vehicle to niche status.
Tesla has shown teaser images and Musk promised certain features on Twitter last year, saying it would be similar in size to Ford's F-150. The Tesla truck will have all-wheel drive with "crazy torque," a suspension that dynamically adjusts for load and a driving range of up to 500 miles as an option, he said. In March, Musk called it a "cyberpunk truck."
Ford and GM officials often say they understand pickup buyers better than anyone, but they are not taking chances, with plans to introduce their own electric trucks. Both also will build electric SUVs.
Ford aims to sell an electric F-series in late 2021, sources familiar with the plans said. It also will offer the Mach E next year as part of its plan to invest $11.5 billion by 2022 electrifying its vehicles.
In April, Ford invested $500 million in startup Rivian, which plans to build its own electric pickup beginning in fall 2020.
GM plans to build a family of premium electric pickup trucks and SUVs, beginning in late 2021 with an electric pickup - possibly under the Hummer brand - followed by a performance variant in 2022 and a GMC truck in 2023, sources have said. It plans to invest $8 billion by 2023 to develop electric and self-driving vehicles.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Matthew Lewis)