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Electric Vehicles

The Cybertruck Is Interesting. Tesla Needs Boring.

Elon Musk is chasing his shiny object.

Elon Musk and Cybertrucks.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Tesla

While channel-surfing over Thanksgiving weekend, I stumbled upon The Aviator — specifically, the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes maniacally scrambles a fleet of biplanes to capture the greatest air combat scenes even filmed, and rants that he doesn’t care if the conservative suits at his company worry he’s squandering his fortune in pursuit of a mad dream. It’s hard to watch these scenes and not think of Elon Musk, Hughes’ heir apparent (with apologies to Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos) as the leading air-and-space-obsessed billionaire man-child of his era. That’s doubly true this week, with the long-awaited official launch of the Tesla Cybertuck.

Bold pursuit of the big dream has always been Musk’s calling card. Before his rise to prominence, onlookers said it would be impossible to start a new space launch company that could outcompete established giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin or start a new car company that could outmaneuver giants like Ford and GM, much less do both at the same time. Musk’s self-marketing as the real-world Tony Stark helped to sell his electric vehicles and kept tech enthusiasts tuned in to his attempts to land reusable space rockets on ocean-going platforms. The man and his mad science were the message.

But the Tesla Cybertruck seemed like a turning point. Instead of chasing another sci-fi dream of a better tomorrow, Musk in 2019 revealed a boyhood cartoon: an all-metal, supposedly bulletproof tank that would feel at home as an armored personnel carrier in some PlayStation theatre of warfare. In the four years since, Cybertruck has swallowed much of Musk’s focus as Tesla tried to bring the vehicle to fruition, which he recently admitted has been a much bigger struggle than he anticipated. The first 10 Cybertrucks will finally be delivered to their very patient owners on November 30.

In light of this misadventure, it’s worth asking: Is it time for Tesla to get boring?

I am on record as saying Cybertruck could succeed. Despite the jeers of auto journalists and onlookers who think Tesla’s truck is ill-conceived, poorly constructed, and, well, stupid, it’s clear that Musk’s cult of personality will sell some of these EVs. Plenty of buyers with the same man-boy fantasy of owning a pointy tank as a daily driver will see the appeal. So will shoppers whose main priority is feeling safe and protected on the highway.

Still, the case for the Cybertruck is eroding. Musk initially teased single- and double-motor versions that would start at $40,000 and $50,000, respectively, bringing the EV in well below the price of some electric truck competitors. After all the time and trouble it took to realize the Cybertuck, though, Tesla will reportedly begin sales by offering only double- and triple-motor versions, and at prices estimated to be $70,000 to $80,000. That puts them on par with pricey trucks like the Rivian R1T.

The biggest trouble with the Cybertruck, though, is the opportunity cost of what Tesla could’ve been doing with all this time and industrial energy. That’s not to say the EV maker is struggling, exactly — the Model Y became the world’s best-selling car during this time, and Tesla has revealed what will become the redesign of the very successful Model 3.

During the development of Cybertruck, however, Tesla seems to have deprioritized the redesign of the Model X, which has looked basically the same on the outside since 2015, for example. It has made slow progress on the promise to build a truly affordable EV in the $25,000 range, which could have entrenched for Tesla a leading position in the entry-level EV market that will soon emerge. Tesla could’ve tried to fill out its lineup with crossovers of other sizes, the way a boring legacy company would have done to keep its huge advantage in market share from slipping away. But Musk chased the shiny steel object instead, allowing his rivals to get back into the game in the process.

Such is the tension inherent in any successful startup. The mercurial, damn-the-torpedoes founder or CEO leads the firm to the promised land, but somewhere along the way to true success comes the pressure to button down and grow up, and to start making sound, sane business decisions instead of building the Spruce Goose.

Musk himself seems to realize this, at times. He once called the gullwing-doored Model X a “technology bandwagon” into which Tesla poured all the whiz-bang technology ideas it could think of. This led to an admittedly wild vehicle, but one that never sold in huge numbers. He seemed to learn his lesson with the simpler and more affordable Model 3 and Y, which led to enormous sales numbers and made Tesla the most valuable car brand in the world. Here in California, Teslas went from exotic to ordinary. Every time I drive my Model 3 down the freeway, there are at least two more within view.

But with those volume successes in hand, the devil on Musk’s shoulder made itself heard once more. Musk’s obsession with making the exterior from stainless steel led to long production delays. And Cybertruck clearly follows the Model X pattern, with Tesla including every possible feature from bulletproof windows to a slide-out tailgate for loading your Tesla ATV in the back.

Maybe Musk got afraid of getting old and becoming boring. Maybe nobody was around with the authority to tell him “no.” Maybe the Cybertruck, once it emerges from its production quagmire, will be another rousing success. But if it’s not, it will be remembered (along with Musk’s ill-advised purchase of Twitter) as the vanity project that ate Tesla's attention right when it had the whole EV world by the tail.

Green

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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