Tesla Cybertruck: PR or Product?

by Jean-Louis Gassée

What pushed Elon Musk to outdo himself and announce the Cybertruck? Not a concept car, he says, but a veritable design destined to shake up the pickup truck market.

Considering Tesla’s Cybertruck, Elon Musk forces us to be of two minds. On one side, we have Musk the Mountebank; on the other, a Captain of Industry.

The Mountebank’s rap sheet is long and multicolored. Shipping deadlines and production targets are constantly missed, causing delivery of promised new models (Y SUV, Roadster, Semi) to recede further into the future. We see the ever-spinning revolving door in the executive suite (see here, here and here) and abrupt changes to the Board of Directors. Musk is fined by the SEC for misleading tweets about taking the company private and then threatened with contempt when he won’t stop. And what are we to think of

bizarre command, quickly countermanded, to replace Tesla’s physical stores with on-line ordering? Or the late night tweet about nuking Mars to prepare for colonization?

For me, the most brazen example of Musk’s Reality Distortion Field is his prediction of a million self-driving robotaxis by the end of 2020, complete with revenue generation for owners who let their Tesla autonomous vehicles enter the fleet and make money for them as they work or sleep.

Musk’s ability to generate headlines — and suffer little for the misses — is second to none.

But let’s also behold Musk as a Captain of Industry, the man who singlehandedly forced the auto business to electrify itself for fear of being electrocuted by a new generation of BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles) that are beloved by the leading edge of environmentally conscious customers. To be sure, BEVs make up only 2% of the market so far, but there’s no turning back.

Musk has made a dent in the auto world, and he did it as a relative small fry. Tesla will produce about 400K vehicles this year; compare that to the 9M to 10M volume achieved by the (few remaining) giant automaker groups such as Toyota, VAG (Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche…), and the newer Peugeot-Fiat-Chrysler.

“Nuke Mars!” aside, one shouldn’t forget Space X, Musk’s successful development of reusable launch rockets. This happens at a time when a more established company such as Boeing suffered a setback with its own launch vehicle.

Without a doubt, Musk belongs to the Captain of Industry category.

Our two minds can now turn to Tesla’s Cybertruck. What possessed Musk to outdo himself with this “thing”?

It bears no resemblance to the great American icon, the pickup truck of farmers, contractors — and pretenders. For reference, Ford’s F-series pickup has been the country’s best selling vehicle for 42 straight years.

How could Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s perennial designer, with a storied career at Volkswagen, GM, and Mazda, the creator of the felicitously well-judged Model S come up with such a discordant vehicle? To what aim?

Nonetheless, more than 250,000 potential customers find the Cybertruck interesting enough to plunk $100 (refundable) for a place in the order queue. (I’m one of them; I received a confirmation email and was told I could finalize my configuration in “late 2021”.) Enthusiasm about a quarter million preorders should be tempered: $100 is a relatively small amount, it’s refundable, and the finalization date (not to be confused with shipment) is two years away — an eternity and then some, given Musk’s lackadaisical treatment of schedules.

This could push the Cybertruck into Musk The Mountebank space, especially when considering that the so-called prototype is more of a concept presentation than an early version to be smoothly stepped towards production. Holzhausen’s team still has to convert the body-on-frame PR device into the promised unibody product. This might sound like hairsplitting but points to the difficult tasks ahead when moving to a manufacturable product.

Manufacturing is complicated by the bold choice for the body’s material: special 3mm extra-hard steel. That choice of material explains the Cybertruck’s unconventional shape. “Normal” steel used in automaking is malleable enough to be stamped or, in some cases, “hydroformed”. No such production techniques are available for the Cybertruck extra-hard and thicker steel, it can only be folded, cut and welded, no curvy shapes available; one wonders about repairs to the body when dented in a collision.

The material explains the shape, but not the design direction. One can only try to weigh the balance between the design and manufacturing challenges, the polarizing shape and how it fits with Tesla’s image.

Today’s Tesla’s products can be seen as electrified and electrifying versions of conventional vehicles: BEVs for meat-eaters, they offer an opposition to the more reserved (some would say ascetic) early members of the category, with their restricted mileage and uninspired aesthetics. It’s tempting to see the Cybertruck design as a deliberate attempt to break from the staid, derivative trend of electrification of existing cars, the best example of which might be the Volkswagen ID.3:

This ad is plastered on the side of the Louvre (!!) in Paris. Technically, it’s a genuine new BEV platform, but one carefully designed to evoke the well-loved Golf.

My own guess is that Musk and Holzhausen made a bold decision to jump out of a growing crowd of lookalike “evolved” BEVs and assert a new identity for Tesla’s truck, as opposed to looking like the electric F-150 that Ford will sooner or later be forced to introduce.

It’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to see, touch, and drive the actual Cybertruck for more than two years. In the meantime, Tesla share price achieved an all-time high of just above $405/share this week, giving the company a stock market value of $73B — that’s almost double Ford’s $37.6B. The high share price gives Tesla more headroom to raise money for manufacturing capacity. The Shanghai Gigafactory 3 is now producing cars for the Chinese market and Musk has started agitating for a Gigafactory in Germany, close to Berlin, we’re told.

Musk would be well advised to use this good fortune to concentrate on his promised vehicles, the Model Y small SUV, the 250mph Roadster, and the rather conventional-looking Semi (conspicuously absent from the official tesla.com site). Is it all possible? Even with the most benign look at the company’s product plans, something will have to fall by the wayside. Today’s story represents too much work, too much capital for too many new projects, and maybe not enough differentiation in places, such as with the semi-truck.

Whatever Musk decides to do, we’ll continue to be treated to the struggle between the irrepressible Mountebank and the inventive but coldly rational Captain of Industry.

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I’m not sure if I’ll be able to publish a Monday Note next week, not for dearth of topics such as companies writing new operating systems at a time when the industry appeared settled. In the meantime, my best and grateful Holiday wishes to Monday Note readers and commenters.

— JLG@mondaynote.com


Tesla Cybertruck: PR or Product? was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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