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 MoreRead More
The Tesla Cybertruck Isn’t a Pickup. It’s a Low-Priced Hummer.
For better or for worse, Americans will soon get to drive a fortress without having to worry about the price of gasoline.
The debut of the Tesla Cybertruck in November 2019 was less a car show-and-tell and more a screaming, all-caps metaphor. The meme-able moment when Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen flung a metal orb at the war rig’s windows, shattering the shatterproof glass, felt like an open invitation to belittle the hubris of it all.
That’s exactly what happened. Gleeful tweets ridiculed the Cybertruck’s stainless steel body, awkward proportions, and poorly rendered pointy shape. Some mocked the steel monstrosity for being useless for the things trucks are supposed to do — actual work and off-road driving — or for having the kind of glaring build quality problems that have always plagued Tesla.
Four years after its botched reveal, and two years after it was originally supposed to go on sale, Cybertruck finally has an official launch date of November 30. Unusually, Elon Musk has tempered expectations for the oft-delayed vehicle, saying Tesla “dug its own grave” with its goals for the Cybertruck. And as delivery day approaches, the truck is still ridiculed online by those who see either a billionaire’s man-boy obsession or the EV equivalent of Homer Simpson’s car of the future: too adolescent, too ridiculous, too Pontiac Aztek-y to succeed.
They are probably wrong. Make no mistake, the Cybertruck is a stupid vehicle. But that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid idea.
Back in 2019, before Musk showcased his polarizing idea of a pickup truck, many enthusiasts envisioned something more mundane. Imagined renderings of the Tesla truck pictured a traditional pickup silhouette with just enough future-feeling design cues. In other words, something a lot more like the Rivian R1T. When Musk instead revealed the demon love child of a tank and a DeLorean, the natural question became, Why?
One answer is beginning to become clear: the market for an EV that looks like a typical pickup truck isn’t as vibrant as many have thought.
Now that the legacy automakers have gotten serious about electrification, that category is filling up. Rivian’s and the Ford-150 Lightning are now available. Ubiquitous trucks like the Chevy Silverado and Ram 1500 have EV versions en route. It’s easy to see why. Given America’s overwhelming preference for big crossovers and pickup trucks, the car companies assumed they could replicate the same dynamic with EVs. But, as Heatmap has reported, something is rotten in the state of electric trucks. New research has shown that startlingly few pickup owners, around 10 percent, say they’re interested in buying an EV truck. While truck-loving Americans will have a variety of electrified choices to pick from, they may not want any of them.
There are plenty of possible reasons. EV trucks are expensive, though, to be fair, Americans have shown they’re willing to pay a huge sticker price for luxury-laden trucks. Limited range could be to blame, especially since range takes an extra hit when a pickup truck is towing. There’s also the fact that pickups are especially popular where prevailing political opinion isn’t particularly friendly to EVs.
Tesla, meanwhile, is playing a different game. The Cybertruck may have a bed in the back and “truck” in its name, but Musk’s steel beast hardly resembles the familiar pickup shape. Aesthetically, it’s closer to the militaristic look of the GMC Hummer EV — except the Cybertuck is likely to cost around half as much.
It’s also entirely possible that, for all the derision from certain corners of the internet, the Cybertruck has a wide base of interested buyers, and that the Venn diagram of Cybertruck shoppers and other EV truck shoppers doesn’t include all that much overlap.
There are Musk fanboys, of course. There are those for whom the angular, aggro posture is a feature, not a bug, and who would love to terrorize the streets of America in stainless steel. Drivers whose primary desire is that their vehicle feel “rugged” or “powerful” will take a long look at Cybertruck, as will those whose sole reason for living is to troll and antagonize the kind of people who think Elon Musk is a fool.
Others will buy the seemingly impractical vehicle for utterly pragmatic reasons, like feeling their family is safe and protected on streets increasingly crowded with other monster trucks. This feeling, along with a preference for riding high rather than sitting low in a car, helped to buoy the SUV craze of the 1990s when American families began to choose big rolling boxes over traditional cars. The Hummer H2, the original fortress on wheels, sold more than 29,000 vehicles per year between 2003 and 2005. Its slightly lighter cousin, the H3, sold even more up until 2007 — when both Hummers were crushed by rising gas prices that more than doubled from 2003 to 2008. With the Cybertruck, Americans can get what they always wanted: the chance to drive a moving castle without having to worry about the price of gasoline.
Cybertruck’s size also allows for large batteries. Originally, Musk teased double- and triple-motor tiers that would give Cybertruck 400 or 500 miles of driving range, a leap forward from what’s commonly available now. That could entice some EV buyers who prize range above all else. My wife — having lived with a Model 3 that started with 240 miles — even said, what the hell, she’d consider one if Elon really did deliver 400 miles of range for a reasonable price (early reports suggest it’ll debut with 350).
As for the Cybertruck’s faults? Manufacturing inconsistencies certainly haven’t stopped Tesla from selling cars. Experts notice design problems like the Cybertruck’s departure angle, which would impede any attempts to traverse rugged terrain. However, the open secret among car journalists is that many car buyers — probably most — don’t particularly care about body roll, panel gaps, or other issues that gnaw at reviewers. They notice whether a car looks cool, feels safe, and has enough space for all their kids’ stuff.
None of this is to excuse what the Cybertruck is. Exact specs are yet to be revealed, but the truck is sure to be big and heavy, making it an exemplar of the oversized EV problem. It would be better for the nation as a whole if EV buyers decide they want smaller, lighter cars that use less energy and are less of a threat to pedestrians and other, less armored cars.
But the basic fact of our era remains: If electric cars are going to be a big part of the climate solution by helping us reduce carbon emissions, then people have to buy them. That, for better or worse, means giving the public what they want. Even if it’s the Cybertruck.