Let’s begin by saying CleanTechnica has always been a big supporter of Elon Musk and Tesla. Our opinions might have been dented a bit lately by Elon’s love affair with Twitter and the massive drop in the value of its shares, but no one can deny that the Incredible Mister Musk has almost singlehandedly sparked the global transition to electric cars. Yes, BMW and Nissan were there at the beginning of the modern EV era, but Tesla was what everyone was talking about. Now that the EV market has matured a bit, everyone is waiting for the next big thing from Tesla — the Cybertruck.
Many in the industry are beginning to wonder whether the Cybertruck might be a bridge too far for Musk and Tesla. Elon has a fascination with science fiction films and has openly admitted the Cybertruck, with its edgy wedge shape, was partially inspired by the imaginary vehicles featured in such classics as Blade Runner and Total Recall. He has borrowed two phrases from the Mel Brooks send-up of Star Wars known as Space Balls — Ludicrous and Plaid. Maximum Plaid mode will supposedly appear in the upcoming Tesla Roadster 2 scheduled to appear sometime this decade.
Writing in the New York Times (which has not always been a big Elon fan) this week, automotive journalist Jack Ewing says, “It would be very unlike Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, to build a pickup that looked anything like the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, or Ram 1500 pickup — three of the best selling vehicles in the United States. With its angular stainless steel body, the Cybertruck is an attempt to redefine the pickup in the same way that Tesla upended the conventional wisdom of the auto industry by proving that battery powered vehicles could be practical and profitable.”
The Cybertruck is so behind schedule that some auto experts wonder if it has become another example of Mr. Musk’s penchant for pushing technological boundaries to the brink of disaster, Ewing writes. In 2018, his determination to build a highly automated assembly line for the Model 3 sedan led to “production hell” and nearly killed the company before he opted for more standard manufacturing practices. This time it’s the use of stainless steel for the Cybertruck’s body that has industry experts shaking their heads. Stainless steel resists corrosion and doesn’t need to be painted, eliminating a production cost and the need for environmentally toxic chemical coatings. But it is also expensive and difficult to shape and weld. Stainless steel is typically heavier than the steel used in most other cars, reducing driving range.
“Musk is an example of how the fetishization of tech start-ups and their leaders can eventually lead those leaders to making bad decisions,” Patrick McQuown, executive director of entrepreneurship at Towson University in Maryland, said in an email to Ewing. “To me, the insistence on stainless steel is a manifestation of his belief that he has some unique understanding of the market and that the market will buy whatever he offers because it comes from the mind of Elon Musk.”
“Tesla thinks they can solve any problem and don’t have to learn from anyone else,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “and then they get stuck in a corner. The first mover advantage that Tesla could have leveraged has completely gone away. It’s a massive opportunity lost.”
The Cybertruck Breaks The Mold
Clearly, McQuown and Rajkumar are not big admirers of Elon, but is his critique valid? Ford, General Motors, and Ram are all piling into the electric pickup space with vehicles that are nearly indistinguishable from their conventional cousins. Pickup trucks are a cultural icon in America and anyone who dares alter the expectations of truck buyers is taking a big risk — something Elon has never been shy about doing. But messing with icons can come back to bite you. Jeep learned that lesson when it put square headlights into a Wrangler many years ago. Would a Harley Davidson that doesn’t make that distinctive potato-potato sound from a V-Twin engine still have the same fascination?
Pickup truck designs in America are now almost a caricature of the genre. They all strive to look tall, aggressive, bulky, and powerful. By contrast, the Cybertruck is more like a ballerina than a weight lifter. Will the Cybertruck really appeal to traditional truck buyers or will it create an entirely new market segment that way the original Dodge Caravan did? The number of pre-orders for the Cybertruck indicates there will be plenty of buyers waiting in line when full production starts in 2024.
Most of the grumbling from industry stalwarts seems to center on Tesla’s decision to make it without a traditional frame, using a stainless steel shell instead. Stainless costs more than the steel used in most automobiles because it contains chromium and often other ingredients, like nickel and molybdenum, that are in high demand. Stainless, with its tendency to spring back to its original shape, means it cannot be stamped into fenders and other parts as easily as the more pliable steel used by most automakers. That will have an effect on its crashworthiness as stainless steel has very different characteristics than stamped steel, which can be formed into crumple zones that absorb much of the force of a collision to protect the occupants inside.
Jack Ewing says there are indications the Cybertruck will use a stainless steel formula that is the same as or similar to the one used by SpaceX, since Charles Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX, holds the same title at Tesla. Previously he was a co-founder of QuesTek, a materials design firm, and was part of a design team at Apple. His reputation as a pioneer in the use of new materials gives some engineering experts confidence that Tesla has developed an alloy that will overcome the challenges of stainless steel.
The experts Ewing spoke with said the large, flat stainless steel panels for the Cybertruck will probably be cut with lasers and then welded together. Our own sources say a giant 9,000 ton casting machine for use in making the Cybertruck has just arrived at the Austin Gigafactory.
“Broadly the concept could make sense,” said Kip Findley, a professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has done research on advanced steel for vehicles. “This is pushing steel development forward and making people think about steel in a different way, which is good. But there are some open questions,” he says, including how owners will repair body damage if it occurs. Stainless steel dents less easily than the steel typically used in conventional automobiles, but once damaged it is more difficult to repair.
Elon is on record as saying he doesn’t much care whether the Cybertruck is a sales success. If it is rejected by the marketplace, Tesla will just design a more traditional truck and move on. There are already reports that a smaller version of the Cybertruck is possible for world markets where such large vehicles are not particularly popular. But a redesign would take years to accomplish and would probably not be kind to the company’s stock price. Musk may not care much about money, but millions of Tesla shareholders certainly do.
Elon Musk can never be accused of failing to think outside the box. In fact, his penchant for thinking way outside the box is one of his most endearing — and maddening — characteristics. There is an old expression that goes like this: Live by the sword; die by the sword. Will Musk pull one more rabbit out of the hat to astound his supporters and confound his skeptics? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.