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The Cybertruck made a mark but missed its moment

The long-delayed electric truck has finally arrived — sort of. Ten trucks are slated for delivery, but Tesla’s problems extend far beyond this first batch.

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Photo illustration of a Tesla Cybertruck.
The Verge / Photo by Bloomberg, Getty Images

It feels like a thousand years since Tesla first introduced the Cybertruck, but it’s actually only been about a thousand days. Still, that’s a long time in the auto world, and to say people are getting antsy waiting would be a huge understatement. 

The Cybertruck certainly took its time getting here, slogging its way through a global pandemic, a presidential election, two ongoing wars, and many other terrible things that have happened over the past four years. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and his emergence as a “haver of bad opinions, especially about Jews” also took place within this time and is sure to cast a shadow over the Cybertruck’s big moment.   

Tesla is facing a much different world than it did in 2019

Now, with the first few Cybertrucks poised to finally reach a small handful of customers this week, Tesla is facing a much different world than it did in 2019 — a world of plummeting profit margins, rising interest rates, dwindling market share, and a loss in investor confidence that Tesla was poised to take over the world.

Musk’s recent scandals have metastasized and folded back over themselves to the point where they’ve become an indecipherable rat king of bad news that most people would prefer to tune out. If Tesla thinks the Cybertruck will help turn things around, it’s probably mistaken. 

When it was first announced, there were no electric trucks on the market. Now, there are at least three… and more on the way. The Cybertruck arrives at a time when the EV market is cooling, as first adopters give way to bargain-hunters who are coming up empty. Experts say what we really need to drive adoption is a mass-market EV that’s affordable and practical. The Cybertruck is neither. It stands proudly as the antithesis of what the market needs. Tesla fans are convinced it will change the industry forever.

But it’s been over four years, so let’s revisit the history of the world’s weirdest, and quite possibly hardest to build, truck. Pour some CyberBeer into your CyberStein, toss on your Cyber backpack, and get ready for some Cybertruck 101. 

What is a Cybertruck?

If you’ve been in a coma for the last four years (and honestly, I envy you), the Cybertruck was first introduced at a lavish event in November 2019 at Tesla’s design studio in California. It was only the sixth vehicle ever introduced by Tesla, and it was supposed to herald the company’s first effort to capture the big-volume, highly lucrative truck market. 

But Musk had no interest in turning the highly successful Model 3 into a truck. Instead, he wanted something straight out of Blade Runner. The result? Angular, dystopian, impractical, and depending on who you ask, kind of goofy-looking. The stainless steel body would emphasize every scratch and fingerprint. The misaligned panels were familiar to anyone who’s owned a Tesla. The truck bed couldn’t even hold that much stuff. And the windshield wiper… well, let’s just say it won’t be doing much wiping. 

Going back and reading our coverage of the actual Cybertruck reveal is a great reminder of how sometimes the first reaction is the most telling. As our then-transportation reporter Sean O’Kane wrote (emphasis mine):

Musk spent months telling everyone that Tesla’s first electric pickup truck would look like something out of Blade Runner. And yet, for a brief moment after the truck appeared onstage, the entire room — one full of Tesla customers and fans from all around the world — fell practically silent in disbelief. 

As he rattled off the truck’s specs and features, I heard a few low exclamations of “what the fuck?” before the hooting and hollering picked back up. It was as if the people in the room were expecting a different kind of magic trick, one where Musk would coyly laugh before revealing the true Tesla pickup truck, which would still eat Ford F-150s for breakfast but look a little less alien. (That feeling only seemed to multiply when Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen broke the truck’s windows while trying to demonstrate their durability.) 

Still, it’s different, and different can be interesting. You can’t deny that the Cybertruck holds a certain appeal, whether as an object of desire or as one of ridicule. People have been flocking to Tesla showrooms to see preproduction models. Social platforms are teaming with “get a load of this truck” videos. People want selfies with the Cybertruck. But do they want the truck itself?

Spectacle doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Ed Niedermeyer, author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, dismissed the Cybertruck as a “meme” vehicle in a recent episode of his podcast, Autonocast. His co-host Alex Roy predicted it will be a huge win for Tesla. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Much will depend on Tesla’s ability to transform its millions of reservation holders into actual owners. 

How much will it cost?

We still don’t know. In 2019, Tesla said it would make three versions of the Cybertruck:

  • Single motor rear-wheel drive with 250 miles of range, 7,500-pound towing capacity, and zero to 60mph capabilities in under 6.5 seconds for $39,900
  • Dual motor all-wheel drive with 300 miles of range, 10,000-pound towing capacity, and zero to 60mph in under 4.5 seconds for $49,900
  • Triple motor all-wheel drive with 500 miles of range, 14,000-pound towing capacity, and zero to 60mph in under 2.9 seconds for $69,900.

Those were the 2019 prices. If the company announces new prices on November 30th, they will most assuredly be higher. The single-motor version, for example, is predicted to retail for over $50,000, while the tri-motor version will likely be over $80,000. Tesla has slashed prices on its Model 3 and Y vehicles this past year, but the Cybertruck seems destined for the premium category. And that could determine whether this is a truck for regular people or a plaything for the rich

Production was originally supposed to start in late 2021. But by August 2021, the company announced a delay until 2022 — and then later to “hopefully” 2023. In the meantime, competitors like Ford and Rivian have launched their own electric pickups, with Ford saying that it plans to make 150,000 F-150 Lightnings this year.

“An angry triangle”

Finding a measured opinion on the Cybertruck is a bit of a wild goose chase. This is a truck that stirs people’s passions. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no in-between.

Car designers who spoke to Business Insider called it “crude” or “a child’s toy.” Others were less charitable. Car designer Adrian Clarke described the Cybertruck as “a low polygon joke that only exists in the fever dreams of Tesla fans that stands high on the smell of Elon Musk’s flatulences.” Others just ripped on it for being an “angry triangle.”

Giorgetto Giugiaro, the legendary car designer behind the Lotus Esprit, BMW M1, and most notably, the DeLorean DMC-12, told NPR that he doesn’t want to judge the Cybertruck “as beautiful or ugly. It certainly has its admirers who want a vehicle to stand out.” 

But the panel gaps aside, production-ready versions of the Cybertruck aren’t without their defenders. The Autopian’s Dave Tracy saw a version in a Tesla showroom and came away impressed, calling it better than the prototypes that were drawing the most ire and “badass.”

The matte black version that Franz von Holzhausen drove to a recent Malibu cars and coffee event drew the most ire. The panel gaps were especially pronounced, while other aspects appeared slapdash and poorly thought out. Car journalist Daniel Golson, who saw it in person, was flabbergasted in his report to Jalopnik:

I’ve been around hundreds of prototype cars in my career, ranging from early test mules to near-production prototypes, and I’ve never seen an automaker proudly present something of this poor quality, especially not this late in development. 

Much has been written about the use of stainless steel for the exterior as the main source of the production delays. Steel is incredibly difficult to bend and manipulate, which complicates Tesla’s ability to shape it into body panels that line up correctly and don’t result in huge gaps. It’s also nearly impossible to flatten and has a tendency to spring back into its curved form. This is why it’s rarely used in vehicle manufacturing. It’s too tough, too expensive, and too heavy than other, more traditional materials. 

Musk’s demands for an exterior that was also bulletproof drove Tesla to seek out thicker steel than what is typically used in the auto industry. This made it more difficult to form, spurring much of the production calamities, according to The Wall Street Journal

Musk himself has been blunt in his characterization of the Cybertruck. The truck will be a huge manufacturing challenge for Tesla, he said in an internal memo reported by CNBC over the summer. He also said he was worried about “precision” in manufacturing the truck because its “straight edges” mean variations show up “like a sore thumb.”

“We dug our own grave with the Cybertruck,” Musk said later in an earnings call. “Cybertruck’s one of those special products that comes along only once in a long while. And special products that come along once in a long while are just incredibly difficult to bring to market to reach volume, to be prosperous.”

Tesla’s future won’t hinge on the Cybertruck 

Martin Viecha, head of Tesla investor relations, recently tweeted that Tesla is “between two major growth waves.” The first wave started with the release of the Model 3 in 2017 and continues with the Model Y in 2020. The next one “will be driven by the next gen vehicle,” Viecha said.

The Cybertruck doesn’t enter into that calculation because Tesla doesn’t expect to make that many, at least not at first. In that “we dug our own grave” earnings call, Musk also said he wanted to “temper expectations” for the truck, adding the company could face “enormous challenges” in ramping up production and making it cash flow positive. He said that Tesla is targeting an annual run rate (the number of vehicles it plans to make in a year) of 250,000 for the Cybertruck, but it’s not likely to hit that output until 2025 at the earliest. 

The Cybertruck is set to arrive at an unsettled time for Tesla. The company’s once eye-watering sales growth has since leveled off as it deals with stiffer competition in the EV space. Some investors are counting on the truck to spark renewed interest in Tesla, especially at a time when Musk’s online shenanigans are a drag on the brand’s reputation. 

A successful Cybertruck launch “will prove to the doubters that Musk can successfully expand the Tesla halo effect as more consumers head down the EV path over the coming years,” said Wedbush’s Dan Ives in a recent research note. 

Not everyone agrees. Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois said Tesla is better off shelving the Cybertruck in the interest of getting its number back up. “However unlikely just a few days before first deliveries, canceling Cybertruck would probably be positive for shares,” Houchois wrote last week. “With 2024 already a lost year for growth, it would help Tesla refocus on an edge that was built on simplicity, scale and speed.”

And Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas said Tesla should focus on new software products that it can license to other automakers, like Full Self-Driving, which is anticipated to shed its “beta” status as part of the Cybertruck delivery event. 

No one asked for this

I’ve been covering Tesla a long time, and I’ve learned never to bet against Musk’s ability to pull a rabbit out of his hat. That said, a stainless steel electric truck that upends manufacturing norms and subverts customer expectations about what a truck should look like was always going to be a tall order. 

There have been bad-looking trucks before. Arguably, the current design trend of massive trucks with overly tall, flat front ends is extremely shitty — and not just for the pedestrians who stand a much better chance of being crushed underneath their tires. 

In the long history of trucks — from the 1925 Model T Roadster to today’s hulking, flat-nosed behemoths — it’s reasonable to assume that we have not seen anything remotely like the Tesla Cybertruck. No one was asking for it, and yet, this week, 10 people are reportedly slated to receive the first Cybertrucks. 

A big day for all of those who care about the Cybertruck. 


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