Tesla did not disappoint.
Thursday night, at a fiery unveiling that was outlandish even by Tesla standards, Elon Musk showed off the Cybertruck, a pickup that outruns the F-150, outhauls it, and even shakes off bullets better — a race Ford probably didn’t even know it was running. Its angular, polygonal body looks like absolutely nothing else on the market. Tesla is ready to electrify the most popular vehicle segment in America: pickup trucks.
Research shows that a vast majority of pickup truck buyers choose them because of the style, not the capabilities. That means the success of the Cybertruck won’t ride on what it can do, it will ride on what it says about its owners. And if the eyebrow-raising reactions to the stealth-bomber profile are any indication, that part remains very much up for debate.
Gaze around at all the unladen, single-occupant pickups on American roads, and it doesn’t take long to realize that these beasts of burden actually lead pretty cushy lives. It’s an open secret in the automotive industry: 75 percent of truck owners will tow something once per year — or not at all — and 70 percent will go off-road once or less annually. Even the Big Three euphemistically refer to their wood-bedazzled luxury models as “lifestyle vehicles,” a nod to the fact that most of them are more likely to transport lattes than bales of hay. (They’ll take your $70,000 either way, thank you). Most pickup buyers don’t need pickup trucks to get work done any more than they need five-pound belt buckles to hold up their pants: It’s a fashion statement.
Lest you think I’m picking on pickup owners, it’s worth conceding that we’re all this vain. Most BMW buyers will never reach Autobahn speeds, most Jeeps never tackle Moab, and most minivans never haul seven people. We just like to know we can, and for other people to know that, too. If consumers only made rational utilitarian choices about our vehicles, the highways would be jammed with bumper-to-bumper Toyota Corollas.
How many red-blooded, Bud-swigging, cowboy-booted Americans would say a cyberpunk truck acts as an “extension of their personality?”
So what are truck owners looking for? I’ll spare you the tired “overcompensating” jokes and cut to the data: Strategic Vision, a market research firm, surveyed 250,000 new vehicles owners to find out which attributes most defined different types of buyers. “Truck owners oversample in [attributes] like: the ability to outperform others, to look good while driving, to present a tough image, to have their car act as an extension of their personality, and to stand out in a crowd,” Strategic Vision president Andrew Edwards told The Drive.
In other words, Truck Nutz exist for a reason. Your local Ford dealership sponsors the rodeo for a reason. Stubbly dudes throwing two-by-fourss over their shoulder in truck commercials are a parody of themselves for a reason. That guy buys an F-150 because that guy likes what it says about him. And that guy is the one Musk needs to sell Cybertrucks to.
Does Tesla’s Cybertruck check the boxes that Edwards says truck buyers are looking for?
Well, it certainly outperforms, if Musk can make good on his claims. Zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds is unheard of acceleration in a pickup — even Ford’s roided-out F-150 Raptor takes 5.1 seconds to do it with a turbocharged V6. And 14,000 pounds of towing capacity cleanly bests every full-size pickup out there. For off-roaders, 16 inches of ground clearance is another spec none of the gassers can touch; the Chevrolet Silverado comes closest at just 10.8 inches.
But that brings us to the otherworldly aesthetic. You can certainly tick the “stand out in a crowd” box, and with bulletproof doors and (maybe) windows, “look tough” is a given. But how many red-blooded, Bud-swigging, cowboy-booted Americans would say a cyberpunk truck acts as an “extension of their personality?” Musk was watching Blade Runner while his would-be buyers were watching The Dukes of Hazzard.
Like it or not, our vehicles represent us.
The Venn diagram of EV owners and truck buyers isn’t just two circles a mile apart, it’s two circles heckling each other. “Prius Repellent” stickers are a thing. Rolling coal on EVs is a thing. Intentionally blocking EV charging stations with non-EVs (“ICE-ing”) is a thing. What makes Musk think this crowd will be interested in joining the EV club just because you can get one that looks like a Mars rover now?
Like it or not, our vehicles represent us. Your dentist likes what his Tesla Model S says about him. And your contractor likes how his F-150 makes him feel. Can the Cybertruck fill that role? Does it telegraph to the world that you work hard? That you like to get your hands dirty? That you you’re self sufficient and ready for anything?
I’ll count the Cybertrucks in Nebraska two years from now and get back to you.
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