WANSHIP, Utah — Engineers at Nissan are working to electrify the company's pickups, joining a growing field of competitors now interested in the segment.
"Electrification will be key to trucks," Francois Bailly, global head of Nissan's Light Commercial Vehicles business, said at a press event here last week. "Electric is fun to drive — it's fantastic torque, acceleration, quietness, all that are great."
But when and how it happens remains to be seen.
Whether Nissan pickups receive hybrid powertrains or full battery-electric powertrains will hinge on the results of technology now in development, and also on affordability.
"There should not be any compromise in terms of towing, in terms of payload," Bailly said. "We need to be able to offer a reasonably priced pickup truck."
Electrification is sweeping across the sedan and crossover segments, but automakers have been hesitant to attempt it on their workaday pickup products, where no-nonsense power and driving range are priorities.
But that is changing.
The U.S. pickup kings, Ford and General Motors, are planning electric versions of their all-important trucks. An electric Ford F-150 is expected as early as 2021.
Meanwhile, Michigan-based startup Rivian aims to begin deliveries of its battery-powered R1T pickup in 2021.
And this week, EV powerhouse Tesla will unveil a Blade Runner-inspired pickup on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show.
"I think it's great for the industry overall," Bailly said, "to challenge all of us."
Nissan is taking a more conservative approach to electrifying its truck lineup. Bailly refers to electric pickups today as only a niche market.
"I don't think we are technologically ready to have that no-compromise EV or plug-in hybrid," he said of trucks. "I don't want to put a truck on the market with limited payload, limited range, limited towing. The customers will not go for that."
But Nissan may have an ace in the hole. To help figure out a U.S. electric-truck strategy, Nissan is working with its Dongfeng Motor joint venture in China, which has developed a small electric pickup.
"We want to learn from that," Bailly said of the Dongfeng program. Nissan will watch how customers use the truck and "go from there in choosing the right technology."
The new product thinking occurs as Nissan figures out what to do with its pickup portfolio.
In the first nine months of the year, the Titan had only a 1.4 percent share of the full-size pickup segment, with sales of 25,412. It's one true rival, the Toyota Tundra, secured a 4.8 percent share and sold three times the Titan's volume.
The full-size segment is dominated by the Detroit 3, which combined to hold an almost 94 percent share and sold 1,696,606 units during that period.
Nissan perseveres in the full-size truck segment because it is large and lucrative.
But the Titan also helps Nissan sell its sedans and crossovers.
"These people are loyal," Bailly said of pickup owners. "If they like our truck, they will buy other Nissan vehicles in the portfolio. So it's a very key segment."
Bailly said improving Titan sales hinges first and foremost on delivering a compelling and customer-focused product.
"What we are doing with this truck is [refocusing] our energy, and maybe have a more limited lineup so we can do more with our available investment," he said.
In the U.S., Nissan needs to improve its relationship with its retailers, Bailly said.
"We [need to give] them better product, better training, helping them understand what is the advantage — why do we think towing is better on the Titan than other trucks," Bailly said. "We need to give them the tools to succeed."