Lordstown Motors: The potential is obvious, but so are the obstacles

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LORDSTOWN, Ohio — A few things quickly became apparent as we were shuffled through a tour of Lordstown Motors' plant in Northeast Ohio near the border with Pennsylvania. First, the hopeful electric truck maker got a steal of a deal when it purchased its 6.2-million-square-foot factory from General Motors for a reported $20 million. Second, Lordstown Motors hired a gaggle of talented and capable engineers to design its first product, the Endurance electric pickup truck. And third, it's going to take a herculean effort and a lot of money to get from where the company is today with its assembly plant and pickup truck to where it wants to get before the end of 2021.

The Endurance trucks that Lordstown had on display for a brief ridealong were still in a beta stage. The bodywork was stamped and welded up in its factory, and their motors and batteries were assembled onsite. But they are very much still a work in progress. The trucks' interiors were assembled from molded bits and pieces but were clearly not production-quality items. There was no interior weatherstripping, and the truck I rode in had its headrest installed backwards. The guts — including 6,048 individual battery cells and all four hub motors — are said to be pretty much finalized.

A brief ride in an Endurance beta truck proved that, massive unsprung mass aside, there are indeed merits to the hub-mounted motor arrangement. The truck's center of gravity is extremely low; lower even than many competing electric vehicles that have motors or transaxles mounted above the level of the axles. This arrangement means there is less body roll during hard cornering. Because each wheel has its own motor, engineers can dial in whatever torque vectoring algorithms they want. Unfortunately, we weren't tossed the keys for our own stint behind the wheel, but we did experience a couple of 0-45-mile-per-hour acceleration runs, a slalom, a 45-mph lane change and a tight-turn course designed to show another benefit of the hub motors: an excellent turning radius.

The Endurance truck feels quick, though we didn't get a straight answer as to whether or not they were running at full power and with final software. The massive parking lot where the demonstration took place was heavily pockmarked and full of bumps and lumps, but the truck glided along just fine. The truck we rode in had 20-inch rims with 275/R60 tires, but again we couldn't verify if those were production-spec.

A stroll through the painting and finishing area of the plant revealed some context on markets where Lordstown hopes to play. Forest Service Green, Municipal Yellow and a very police-appropriate blue were all front and center. Of course, white, black, shades of gray and one bright red were also accounted for and likely to be specced by regular consumers, but there certainly seems to be an emphasis on fleet sales.

Executive Chairwoman Angela Strand, appointed after Steve Burns resigned as Chief Executive Officer following the revelation that "periodic disclosures regarding preorders" were in some cases "inaccurate," told us that Lordstown "will be first to market with a full-size all-electric pickup truck." Executives and engineers at the company we spoke with seem to legitimately believe that their goals to have at least small-scale Endurance production underway before the end of the year, but a lot of work remains to reach that lofty goal. For instance, a brand-new electric motor production line has yet to be installed — best we could tell, motors are currently assembled mostly by hand — and some equipment isn't even yet onsite. The panels we witnessed being stamped were loaded into a massive press by hand, not by robot. And the final mating process of the body and chassis is not yet fully automated.

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Besides finishing the factory preparation and advancing out of beta and into preproduction and final production, there are looming questions about the company's current financial position. There's also the matter of preorders, or rather how firm those orders may or may not be. According to Lordstown in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, "Although these vehicle purchase agreements provide us with a significant indicator of demand for the Endurance, these agreements do not represent binding purchase orders or other firm purchase commitments."

Company officials were not willing to add anything more to the official statements that have already been made regarding its financial status or the number of preorders for the Endurance. They would only say that they are "evaluating multiple potential sources of funding" in addition to evaluating strategic partners and "continuing our due diligence" in pursuit of a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Another intriguing potential future product was revealed on a mud-filled grassy area on the far end of the factory grounds. A military prototype with six seats and a full roll cage painted in a familiar shade of Army green was already covered in mud by the time we strapped ourselves in the front passenger seat. Driver Matt Blanchard, who also piloted Lordstown's Baja prototype that was entered in the San Felipe 250 off-road race but failed to finish, said the basic chassis, battery pack and hub motors were all taken from the Endurance truck. Its suspension was modified for greater travel and strength. We sat back and got soaked as the prototype soared over jumps, bounded and power-slid across muddy embankments and even dove headfirst into 30 inches of water, coming out filthy but otherwise unscathed.

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What does all of this mean for the future of Lordstown Motors? We honestly don't know. But we can say that our brief interaction with the Endurance pickup suggests it could be a viable electric truck, albeit after quite a bit more work is done. One way or the other, we're happy to be buckled up and along for the ride, even if it's a bit bumpy.

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