25 Nov 2019
Bad joke or a big mistake?
Greg Quinton talks in WIRED on Tesla's new bonkers Cybertruck.
Tesla has a new vehicle. And a new PR disaster. At the launch of the Cybertruck, Elon Musk asked his on-stage helper, Franz, to throw a metal sphere at the pick-up’s armoured glass to demonstrate the impregnability of the glazing. To Musk’s cringing embarrassment, the window smashed.
“Try the other?” Franz asked, brandishing another metal ball. No doubt praying for redemption, Musk nervously agreed. Smash. “Er... room for improvement,” was all he could muster in response. Musk then gamely went on with the rest of the show, with a broken Cybertruck looming behind him, like a stubborn child refusing to show off for an overbearing parent’s dinner party guests.
Despite such a calamitous unveiling, much online cooing has greeted the Cybertruck and its angular design. This is supposedly Telsa’s attempt to break into the popular pick-up truck market in the US, taking market share from established names such as Ford, GM and Dodge.
As far as the specs go, it’s all rather impressive: seating for six, unpainted stainless steel body panels, autopilot, adaptive air suspension, over 40cm of ground clearance and (supposedly) armoured glass. As far as carrying stuff about, it can deal with a payload of over 1,500kg, and the top-spec version can tow a maximum of 6,350kg. The load bay at the rear, complete with a built-in sliding electric cover, is two metres long with more than 2,800 litres of space. Three versions will be available: a rear-drive single motor, dual motor and a new ‘tri-motor’ with two motors on the rear axle.
The base model will cost $39,900 (£31,100), while the tri-motor, which claims a 500-mile range, will set you back $69,900. This model will also apparently manage 0-60mph in under 2.9 seconds, more than twice as fast as rival pick-ups. But you would expect an EV truck to have much better acceleration than an ICE one, wouldn’t you? And besides, this is a pick-up, not a sports car. Try testing that 0-60mph time on the way back from the garden centre and there’s not going to be much left of your azaleas as they merrily pinball about the two-metre long load bay.
And this brings us back to the core proposition of the Cybertruck, supposedly coming in 2021. Is it really meant to take on Ford, GM and Dodge’s versions? It can’t be. Let’s just examine that design. The Tesla Cybertruck is the most middle-aged, male-kidult car I have ever seen. Take a look for yourself. It looks like the weird lovechild of Hard Drivin’, Back To The Future’s DeLorean, James Bond’s Wet Nellie Lotus submarine from The Spy Who Loved Me and, perhaps most tragically, Apple’s Desktop Bus Mouse.
But when you discover that Musk personally owns one of the actual Wet Nellie models used in the Bond film, things start to click into place. This may well not be a serious entrant into the pick-up space. This is the work of billionaire at play. He’s made his ultimate Dinky toy. One he can drive to the garden centre to pick up his azaleas, and then promptly destroy on the way home as he drag races some punk in their 911, leaving them (and his plants) for dust at the lights.
Greg Quinton, chief creative officer at WPP brand agency Superunion, is more succinct, describing the Cybertruck as “the love child of a cheese grater and a door wedge. Who’d have thought that was possible? The truck reverses automotive design back to a child’s first Duplo car. Sergio Pininfarina is likely turning in his grave.”
Mike Ramsey, senior research director, automotive and smart mobility at Gartner, is equally blunt. “I think this may be a somewhat elaborate joke,” he says. “It’s not a truck. It’s not bulletproof. It’s a prop from an early 1980s movie, which is very on point for Elon’s sense of humour.”
Ramsay goes as far as to suggest that a proper pick-up will be unveiled at a later stage, one closer to an actual production model. Indeed, to my eyes, the Cybertruck looks positively lethal to pedestrians. In an earlier on-stage demo, good old Franz took to the door panels with a sledge hammer to show how nothing was going to dent those suckers. Imagine being the unfortunate person to step out at the last second in front of a Cybertruck, even one on autopilot?
Also, those sharp edges may not be legal. According to a United Nations agreement “no protruding part of the external surface [of a car] shall have a radius of curvature less than 2.5mm”. That means no sharp bits, people. The Cybertruck, meanwhile, looks plenty pointy. This is why so may production cars end up looking nothing like the concept version. Once the designs are made legal, taking into account safety regulations, those sharp lines, almost exclusively penned by male designers, have to be rounded off to protect the likes of you and me.
One has to also wonder if Elon has done his homework? As this is such a radical departure from the normal, conservative ground of US pick-ups, could the Cybertruck prove too dramatic to tap into such a lucrative market? “This isn’t going to appeal to your average consumer,” says Alyssa Altman, industry lead for transportation and mobility at Publicis Sapient. “It is very angular, it feels more male than female, [a move] away from what the other car companies are doing. It does not feel like it is targeted at traditional truck buyers. It looks like something that could be used from a fleet perspective, where brands may pick it up and become known for using it.”
“This is going to be hard to sell, they are not going to be lining up to buy it,” Altman adds. “I’m not sure much of this is planned. Tesla are just going to put it out there. This is a dangerous approach. And there may be some ego at play here.” She’s talking about Elon’s ego, of course, and draws an interesting comparison to Steve Jobs and how he pushed through designs with no market research, but how he was able to do this “because he completely understood consumer needs”. Does Elon? Remember Telsa forgot to make floor mats on its first electric car. How’s that for understanding consumer needs?
But say this is not a joke. Say this is the real Cybertruck that comes to market in 2021. According to Ramsey, Tesla can’t physically make it. “There is no place to build this thing,” he says. “No plant. There is no space currently in California. There are, of course, plants being constructed in China and, now, Berlin, but as of yet, the location is unknown. It wouldn’t make sense to build the truck anywhere but the US as it will be the primary market, unlike China for the Model Y or 3. So it could mean shuffling production, which is terribly expensive and time consuming.”
One thing is certain, if the Cybertruck is indeed real, it is aimed squarely at die-hard Tesla fans. It most likely won’t appeal to the greater truck audience. “Trucks need to be functional,” he says, “and the primary function of this truck seems to be for navigating a post-nuclear wasteland or hovering over Blade Runner-esque Los Angeles.” Well, there’s definitely a market for that, just ask the nearest teenage boy - or a billionaire space-obsessed middle-aged South African.
First published in WIRED.