Tesla’s Cybertruck has polarised opinion, testing even die-hard fans of the brand. But its outlandish appearance could have far broader consequences than just low sales…
A Rocky Start
The automotive industry has been eagerly awaiting Tesla’s first pick-up truck for years. An enormous amount of hype had been generated for the vehicle, much of this stemming from Elon Musk’s own statements. For instance, prior to the vehicle’s reveal he described it as a “really futuristic-like cyberpunk, Blade Runner pickup truck”. He also said that it was like “an armoured vehicle from the future”. Needless to say, language like this captured everyone’s imagination; especially given that official teasers were so sparse and Spartan. But hype is often just that, hype, and when a product fails to deliver it can backfire catastrophically.
With expectations running high, Musk officially revealed the Cybertruck (we now know this is its official name) in Los Angeles last Friday. As it rolled out, a momentary silence betrayed the audience’s confusion. Tesla drivers are some of the loyalist on the road, but even the die-hard fans had to take a moment for the programming to set in. It’s bare, angular looks are reminiscent of something between an early noughties concept car and something you put on the fridge as a primary school pupil; or maybe something from a computer game back when polygons could be counted on our fingers.
Things then got a little weird. In an attempt to demonstrate his truck’s durability, Musk asked a co-host to throw a metal ball at one of its windows. This went as you might expect it to, with the window instantly cracking. The co-host then insisted that he try and another and a nervous Musk agreed. Again, the window cracked. Musk’s reaction was clearly one of genuine surprise, given his sudden use of an expletive. He was then forced to deliver the rest of his presentation in front of his Cybertruck bearing two very cracked windows.
Elon Musk is the closest thing you can get to a real-life Tony Stark. He’s a charismatic billionaire who makes headlines with outlandish Tweets, pop culture references and lots of talk of technological marvels. He’s been at the epicentre of the rise of electric vehicles and has built an enormous automotive company against all the odds. But the Cybertruck could be a sign that things are starting to become problematic. The company’s decision to make a pick-up truck, apparently, owes much to Musk’s personal interests in the project. He’s continually emphasised his own excitement and enthusiasm. But there’s also a very strong business case, too; pick-ups represent around 20% of the American market alone. They practically dominate demand in Midwestern states.
By expanding its portfolio, Tesla is working to demonstrate that it’s more than a niche brand. It’s not just targeting Californian environmentalists or early-adopters, it wants to present all drivers with zero-emission mobility. This has always been its raison-detre. So offering a pick-up is important, something Musk stressed himself whilst on stage. But pick-up drivers, overwhelmingly male, are a different breed to other motorists. They’re fiercely brand loyal, often electing to drive what their parents drove, and are very particular about performance and appearances. They want something that exudes manhood whilst being uncompromisingly practical. Not too long ago another electric car manufacturer, Rivian, had to change the design of one of its model’s headlights simply because focus groups weren’t smitten. So the question has to be asked, then, who is the Cybertruck for? American pick-up drivers or Elon Musk?
Driving Towards Zero-Emissions?
Tesla has an enormous amount of technological knowledge and expertise. It’s proven that it can make exceptional cars that win the adoration of its clientele. It would have been supremely straightforward for the company to roll-out a conventional, but modern pick-up boasting a ton of in-car tech and startling performance figures. With such a pick-up, it could look to take on Ford’s F-150 and in volume. This would have almost certainly have been a profitable venture and, perhaps more importantly, would potentially tempt millions of drivers to give up on the combustion engine. Instead, the Cybertruck is an ode to Musk’s increasingly outlandish behaviour and, arguably, need to be in the spotlight. The trimmings of the reveal event itself demonstrate this. Actors wore Cyberpunk-style costumes and sold noodles in reference to the Blade Runner film; everything is modelled on Musk’s personal tastes and interests and not business sense.
The Cybertruck itself does boast some impressive characteristics. The cheapest version will manage 0 – 60 in less than 6.5 seconds. Range is between 250 – 500 (depending on the trim). All variants house the technology and autonomous features you’d expect from a Tesla, too. But it’s all wrapped up in one of the weirdest packages ever rolled out by a major automaker. It’s almost as though it’s been designed to alienate and polarise. But maybe that’s just the point, the car resembles its creator.
The Bottom Line
Elon Musk had a choice, he could have designed the Cybertruck for pick-up drivers or for himself and his niche, die-hard fans. He made the decision to go for the latter. This, potentially, has serious long-term consequences for Tesla as a whole and its mission to popularise electric motoring.
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