Tesla CEO Elon Musk just unveiled the company’s first electric pickup truck, also known as Cybertruck, at an event in Los Angeles, California. The truck will come in three versions with 250 miles, 300 miles, and 500 miles of range, respectively. And it will start at $39,900, Musk said. The truck won’t be rolling off the assembly line until late 2021, but preorders can be made at tesla.com/cybertruck.
Always a showman, Musk put the truck through its paces in an effort to demonstrate its ruggedness. He had Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief of design, hit the door of the truck with a sledgehammer several times, claimed it was practically bulletproof, and showed the truck winning a tug-of-war with a Ford F150 and a drag race with a Porsche 911.
However, when he tried to show how shatterproof the “armoured” glass was, things went awry. A metal ball thrown by von Holzhausen shattered both the truck’s windows. “We’ll fix it in the post,” a sheepish Musk quipped.
THE CYBERTRUCK, Tesla’s all-new electric pickup truck, is here, looking like a triangle from the future, and it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a dent. And while that might not be a day-to-day use case for many prospective buyers, it’s very handy if you’re showing off the prowess of your latest all-electric model for the first time at a glitzy event in Los Angeles, as Tesla (and SpaceX) CEO Elon Musk did Thursday night. And just for fun, Musk showed off another new Tesla product: an (obviously) electric ATV. Truck production, according to Tesla’s website, is slated for late 2021.
The base version of the Cybertruck, with a single motor, will start at $39,900, good for 250 miles of range, a tow rating of 7,500 pounds, and a 0- to 60-mph time of 6.5 seconds. A dual-motor $49,000 version can tow 10,000 pounds and reach 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, with 300 miles of range. And the top-of-the-line variant, starting at $69,900, will go more than 500 miles between charges, hit 60 mph in under 3 seconds, tow up to 14,000 pounds, and start production in late 2022. That one, according to a slide Musk showed, has a tri-motor setup, though the CEO didn’t explain how that would work. (Single-motor setups tend to put the motor on the rear axle, dual-motor setups put one motor on each axle.)
In his unusually short, 25-minute presentation, Musk spoke to the importance of entering the pickup segment, one of the most popular in the US. “We need something different. We need sustainable energy now,” Musk said on stage, before a crowd of fans and journalists at SpaceX’s headquarters.
As with its other models, Tesla gave Cybertruck some thoughtful goodies. It has 120-volt and 240-volt power outlets and an onboard air compressor, turning the truck into a mobile power station for work sites. According to previous Twitter reveals from Musk, it can parallel park itself (now a common feature in new cars) should it ever wander into a city. And, for unclear reasons, it’s bulletproof, at least to a 9-millimetre handgun. Though when Musk invited Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen to throw a metal ball at the window, the result was major cracking and a somewhat embarrassed CEO.
Putting aside a less than ideal performance onstage, the Cybertruck represents a potentially big part of Tesla’s future, as the automaker seeks to expand its footprint and improve its financials. Pickup trucks make up roughly 15 per cent of US vehicle sales, a share that has steadily grown since 2009, according to research shop IHS Markit. The Ford F-150 has been the top-selling passenger vehicle in the US for 36 years straight; Americans buy nearly a million every year. More important, pickups produce serious profits: Reuters has reported that General Motors nets, on average, $17,000 per pickup. On high-end models with the sorts of options that push sale prices above $100,000, that margin can reach $50,000. And while Tesla will have serious competition here, the pickup battlefield is mostly limited to domestic manufacturers, thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s “chicken tax” that puts a 25 per cent tariff on imported light trucks.
Bulletproof stainless steel body
The Tesla Cybertruck’s body is made of cold-rolled stainless steel, just like a refrigerator or the DeLorean featured in the Back to the Future movies. During the Cybertruck’s launch event, we noted that the steel bodywork required frequent cleaning to remove fingerprints. We also watched Tesla’s head of design, Franz Von Holzhausen, swing a sledgehammer into the driver’s door panel, leaving no visible damage.
Though we haven’t verified the claim, Tesla presented images at the Cybertruck unveil of a stainless steel body panel that had been shot by a 9mm bullet at a distance of 10 meters. Aside from black smudges at the impact site, the Cybertruck’s hardened stainless steel bodywork appeared undamaged.
By contrast, Cybertruck’s “Transparent Metal” glass fared much worse. To demonstrate its strength, Tesla’s head of design, Franz Von Holzhausen, threw a heavy metal ball at the driver’s window, promptly shattering it. Assuming the failure was a fluke, Tesla’s president Elon Musk suggests Franz try the rear window. It promptly shattered too. So while parts of the Cybertruck may very well be bulletproof, the glass is not.
Its specs are awesome, right?
Of course — though the level of awesomeness depends on the version you look at. The entry-level variant is equipped with a single motor that spins the rear wheels. It tows 7,500 pounds, takes 6.5 seconds to reach 60mph from a stop, and delivers approximately 250 miles of range. Tesla does not publish specifications about its batteries.
Move up in the hierarchy, and you’ll find the midrange version with two electric motors (one per axle) for all-wheel drive, a 10,000-pound towing capacity, a 4.5-second sprint to 60mph, and about 300 miles of range. Last but not least, the triple-motor flagship model tows 14,000 pounds, rockets to 60mph in 2.9 seconds, and boasts about 500 miles of range. Remember, the Cybertruck is not in production, so these numbers are merely goals at this point. They’re not set in stone, and they haven’t been proven or tested for miles on end in real-world conditions.
Ground clearance checks in at up to 16 inches, thanks in part to an adaptive air suspension that’s standard regardless of how the truck is configured. Tesla is dialling in approach and departure angles of 35 and 28 degrees, respectively. Autopilot will come standard, though it will not make the truck autonomous; it’s a driver-assistance system.
So, it’s like an F-150?
Kind of, sort of, but not really. On the surface, both are pickup trucks, and Ford is indeed planning to release an electric version of the next-generation F-150. Still, Tesla documents confirm the Cybertruck will be aimed at heavier models.
“While we have not yet begun production of the Cybertruck, we expect it to have a towing capacity of 7,500 to 14,000-plus pounds, and it should very likely qualify as a Class 2B-3 medium-duty vehicle,” explained Sarah Van Cleve, the company’s senior managing policy advisor, in a letter written to California’s Air Resources Board (ARB).
That’s legal jargon for a truck with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 8,501 to 10,000 pounds, which is a level above the F-150. If the specs don’t change, the Cybertruck will land in the same segment as medium-duty rigs like the Ford F-250, the Ram 2500, and the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Yukon 2500 twins.
Where will it be built?
In early 2020, Tesla announced it needed to build a second factory to manufacture the Cybertruck. It’s out of space in its Fremont, California, facility, and it recently hinted it wants to leave the Golden State after a public spat with authorities over whether and when to reopen the plant. The company confirmed the Cybertruck plant would be somewhere in the central United States, and insiders familiar with the ongoing negotiations anonymously revealed the two finalists are Austin, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. No formal decision has been made as of writing.
Since it started building the lowish-cost Model 3 by the tens of thousands, hitting its stride in the back half of 2018, Tesla has relied on volume to periodically break into the black, sending Musk on a long, painful slog through “production hell.” A vehicle line that delivers more money per vehicle could ease that pressure. As with luxury sedans and SUVs, IHS Markit analyst Stephanie Brinley says, “people will pay more for more space and more capability.”
That capability will be key to Cybertruck’s success. Unlike luxury SUVs with off-roading abilities nobody uses, pickups are commonly put to work. Many go-to contractors, construction workers, and the like—folks who need their beds and capacious torque to get a job done. Others go to civilians who spend their weekends’ dirt biking, riding horses, or taking the boat to the lake, and who need a pickup’s power to schlep their equipment around. “You can’t swap in a Camry for an F-150,” Brinley says.
The good news for Tesla is that pickups can make good electric vehicles, and vice versa. The large, expensive vehicles accommodate large, expensive batteries better than a compact sedan does. The torque that flows so easily from electric motors and allows for Tesla’s “ludicrous” acceleration is also what gives the Cybertruck its strength. Owners who drive set routes between work sites might be able to plan their charging stops. Pickup customers are less likely to live in an apartment building than a single-family house where they can install a home charger.
On the other hand, public charging infrastructure is hardly developed in the middle of the country where pickups are especially popular. As an example, Chargepoint, the nation’s largest EV charging provider, has more than 500 stations in San Francisco and fewer than 150 in North and South Dakota combined. Tesla has just eight supercharger stations in South Dakota and none in its northern neighbour.
No wonder, then, that Tesla isn’t the only automaker moving into this space. All-electric newcomer Rivian plans to start building its $69,000 R1T truck next year. Another startup, Bollinger, is developing a limited-volume, trail-bashing electric pickup. Ford is planning to build a battery-powered F-150 in the next few years; in July it had a prototype version to haul a 1.3 million-pound train around a Canadian railyard. GM announced just Thursday afternoon that its previously announced electric pickup will enter production in the fall of 2021. Those electric vehicles, though, won’t be Cybertruck’s real competition. Pickup buyers, according to research by Cox Automotive, hardly consider fuel economy when shopping. They care about capability and reliability. Plus, compared with other drivers, they’re particularly loyal to their brands of choice.
For the Cybertruck to succeed the way the Model 3 has, Tesla must steal the customers’ Ford, GM, Chrysler, and other automakers most value. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Detroit with such a plan. The big automakers pay very careful attention to their trucks: They know their customers well and develop each new model based on decades of learnings. Musk has a knack for rethinking the customer experience, and the Cybertruck’s radical design could appeal to drivers looking for something different. But when it comes to meeting what those drivers need and want from their trucks, it’s playing catch up. “Tesla can figure it out, but they don’t already know,” Brinley says. “If the truck can’t deliver the functionality [drivers] need, they’re not gonna buy it.” Which means that Tesla is fixing to challenge its core competency—designing vehicles that delight and surprise their drivers—as never before.
Moreover, Tesla has struggled with reliability. In February, Consumer Reports revoked its recommended status for the Model 3, citing problems like stuck latches and malfunctioning doors. (As Tesla smoothed out Model 3 production, it settled those issues, and Consumer Reports restored its recommendation last week.) The Model X SUV, in particular, has been plagued with problems, many stemming from its overly complex falcon-wing doors.
Such troubles would inconvenience any driver, but they could cause serious problems for one who relies on the Cybertruck not just to get to their job, but to do it. And those jobs often entail repeated towing, off-roading, and other labours that “border on abuse,” says Brian Moody, the executive editor of Autotrader. If Tesla’s pickup can’t keep up, customers “are going to be very vocal about their dissatisfaction.”
All that, though, only matters if Tesla can actually turn the prototype Musk debuted onstage into an actual product. The Roadster, Model S, Model X, and Model 3 also hit the market well after Musk’s targets. Once they did, they came off the line slowly and with problems. The learning curve has been steep. And before Tesla starts making the Cybertruck, it has to get the Model Y, the baby SUV Musk showed off in March, into production. The Silicon Valley upstart is also working to roll out its semi-truck and revamped Roadster sports car sometime next year. It’s not clear how Tesla might incorporate another new kind of vehicle into facilities already building an increasingly complex model lineup.
So the Cybertruck will be a few years in the making. And if you’re eager to use it to do your job, better hope Musk and Tesla can do theirs.