I’m actually glad that I didn’t add my own hot take to the public conflagration that met Elon Musk’s reveal of the Cybertruck. The video-game styling of this sci-fi electric pickup — purportedly inspired by the original Blade Runner movie, or perhaps a vintage Lotus Esprit — was something I needed to absorb, as one would when smacked in the face with this giant wedge of stainless steel.
I still have issues with the Cybertruck, but its controversial, scrapyard-from-Mars styling is the least of them. And having had a few days to cool down, I kind of get it. Tesla and Elon Musk, knowing they can’t (for now) dent the popularity of conventional pickup trucks, or build 1 million units a year even if they wanted to, went with a spectacularly unconventional truck instead. That the truck’s bulletproof windows shattered during its reveal didn’t change the takeaway: The Cybertruck wants to shatter the mold, like every Tesla before it.
Cybertruck is unlike any current production vehicle. (Photo: TheDetroitBureau.com)
As a car reviewer, I’ve noticed how media and consumers alike love to complain that cars and trucks all look and act alike. But whenever a company actually tries something new, the same people go ballistic and dismiss the result as bizarre, ugly, an abomination. The crudely angular Cybertruck has been called all that and more, with references abounding to doorstops, appliance boxes, even the Pontiac Aztek. My personal favorite came from Megan Mackay, who tweeted the burning question, “What if there was a Hummer for people who pretend to understand Bitcoin?”
Well. Let’s acknowledge, first, that no truck is as homely as the new Chevy Silverado. Homely is worse than ugly in my book, because ugly can still be interesting. The Chevy is also boring, old-tech, and as imaginative as a CBS sitcom. So the Tesla — with a purported 500-mile driving range and oodles of torque and tech — is already far ahead on those scores. (Tesla says a $39,900 base model will cover 250 miles). Even among electric models, everyone is talking about the Cybertruck, and not the Ford Mustang Mach-E that had its 15 minutes of fame before the Tesla sucked all the oxygen from the room.
I’ve also defended a number of controversial cars over the years, including the BMW X6, whose initial shock gave way to grudging acceptance (from pearl-clutching car reviewers), major awards (from auto designers and design experts) and huge sales. The X6 is instructive, because love it or hate it, the BMW kicked off a trend of sportier, slope-roofed SUVs that’s being mimicked by every luxury brand from Detroit to Shanghai. Now, the Cybertruck is obviously more radical (and less handsome) than the BMW, but it takes the X6’s screw-you attitude, and raises it by a factor of 10.
Tesla founder Elon Musk speaks to the media. (Photo: Getty Images)
Musk is claiming that 250,000 people have plunked down $100 deposits to reserve a spot in the Cybertruck line. If we take Musk at his word, the question remains: Who are these people? Surely they’re not traditional truck loyalists who tattoo Ford, Chevy or Ram on their biceps. Contractors, landscapers? Doubtful. I’d kill to know how many of these hand-raisers have never owned a pickup or hardcore SUV before. And that’s where the Cybertruck begins to trouble me: If you’re buying one strictly as a tech or fashion statement, the Tesla becomes as pointless as that Hummer, a military off-roader slurping its way through Beverly Hills.
I worry that many buyers are eager to don the Cybertruck like a space-cowboy costume, a lifestyle accessory — a pair of $500 Lanvin sneakers, perhaps — that ends up sending the exact opposite message that buyers intended. E.g., the Cybertruck man (definitely a man, because women won’t be caught dead in this thing) won’t be perceived as some off-roading outdoorsman or action hero, but as a city-slick poseur or overcompensating tech dweeb. In a piquant irony, the fuel-swilling Hummer flashed a middle finger to polite society and environmentalists, and became a pariah and punch line in those circles. The Cybertruck may end up being the Hummer in reverse. Combine the Cybertruck’s own Schwarzenegger-style, post-apocalyptic aggression — more Terminator than Commando —with that familiar Tesla note of smug condescension, and the Cybertruck might drive actual, working pickup owners to rage or acts of vandalism.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a lifestyle truck, as long as you live the lifestyle, at least on occasion. And we’re definitely seeing a major resurgence of authentic 4×4 trucks. As Musk surely knows, the Jeep Wrangler has never been more popular, more than doubling its sales over the past decade. The reborn Land Rover Defender and Ford Bronco are among the most talked-about, eagerly awaited SUVs in years. The thing is, that Wrangler is also a brilliant everyday vehicle, including in urban setting: Tough as nails, easy to park, easy to see out of. The Cybertruck, at roughly seven meters long, will not be. Parking the Cybertruck in a city will be a nightmare. It looks bigger than a New York apartment, only with more blind spots, with its scrawny windows and impractical flying buttresses along the bed sides.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of time for Tesla to tone down the Cybertruck’s seeming impracticality, or apply more artistry to its currently crude shape. Production isn’t set to begin until late 2021, or 2023 in Musk years. Musk, congenitally unable to resist tweaking Detroit, is now literally tugging them — staging a tug-of-war between the Cybertruck and a gasoline-powered Ford F-150 whose silliness didn’t stop the stunt from going viral. The Tesla, however much your retinas may protest, has spurred Ford, Chevy, Rivian and other automakers to develop their own electric pickups, pronto.
Cybertruck’s stated bed payload is 3,500 lbs. (Photo: Tesla)
And that’s my biggest issue with the Cybertruck, as currently constituted. Electric powertrain aside, the Tesla seems both monstrous and monstrously inefficient in terms of size, mass, aerodynamics, battery capacity and potential battery replacement costs. From the Tesla’s vague specs, and the roughly 120-to-180-kilowatt battery pack that may be required to keep it moving, I’m pegging its curb weight at 7,000 lbs, minimum. Throw in a stated 3,500-lb bed payload capacity, and its gross vehicle weight would surely top 10,000 lbs. That would put the Cybertruck squarely in the medium-duty truck category. Those are supposed to be commercial working trucks, not passenger pickups. Interestingly, that Cybertruck wouldn’t have to meet the strict crash and pedestrian-safety standards that apply to every conventional, half-ton pickup. Is that really the kind of vehicle that Americans should be using for commuting, grocery shopping, everyday living? Tesla already has sedans and SUVs that are more energy-efficient, and far-better-suited to its customers’ daily needs.
Musk may be breaking the mold, but in this way, he’s also pandering to the crowd. Just because Americans are the only people in the world who drive oversized, often-underutilized trucks just for the fun of it, doesn’t mean that EVs should follow suit. When governments, regulators and futurists envisioned a world of electric transportation, they definitely weren’t thinking 3.5-ton electric battering rams. Movie fantasies are fine, but should we applaud a truck designed to let tech bros pretend they’re Mad Max? Ultimately, the Cybertruck looks like it might rescue you from a faraway planet. But it’s definitely not going to help save this one.