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Tesla Cybertruck
Fair use case via Wikipedia: From promo material)

Tesla’s Cybertruck Runs on … Hype?

When planning for the future, Tesla should maybe think reality, not Mad Max

Tesla revealed its next big product over the weekend—the Cybertruck. The goal of the truck is to make a futuristic vision of automobiles a reality today. Unfortunately for Tesla, the Cybertruck is the kind of product that appeals to fans of Dune and Mad Max, but not many others. The product reveal itself was also…interesting. You can see a 5-minute recap here:

A closer look at the truck

Aesthetically, it looks like you are driving an armored triangle. It’s essentially the kind of car you would expect to see in an early 3D video game that had extremely low polygon counts, perhaps in the 1990s. Those things were shaped like triangles because that’s about as much as you could get the graphics cards to render in those days. So apparently, the future is shaping up to have the same polygon count as old video games.

It looks like Musk is trying to break away from industry design standards which result in many cars that look the same. However, as Ed Niedermeyer points out, the reason for this industry convergence on a few designs is that the design requirements that serve mass audiences has itself converged.

Combining road safety, engineering principles, and consumer requirements has led to a standard set of tradeoffs in the industry. Musk may indeed have bucked the system, but the question is whether or not there was a reason to.

The truck bed is also strange but does offer some benefits. The triangle high sides of the truck are odd. It seems strange to make loading something onto your truck from the side more difficult. However, I loved the fact that the top can easily be closed. Additionally, the tailgate can be modified into a load ramp. That is fabulous. The truck also has an air compressor which, at least in theory, could be a benefit.

There is also a charging port in the truck, in case you are transporting an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). This seems like an oddly specific design feature, as transporting ATVs is not the most common way a truck is used.

The specifications of the Cybertruck are odd. The features highlighted in the demonstration were strange, to say the least. For example, there was a strong focus on the indestructibility of the truck. While that, in general, is a good thing, the chosen demonstrations are unusual. For instance, we are shown that one can hit the truck with a sledge hammer and not dent it, that it was bulletproof, and that you could throw a giant metal ball at the window and it won’t break (this latter test failed, but more on that later). However, I think this whole approach is off-base.

Owners of trucks do indeed want their trucks to be indestructible, but it’s not people who intend to cause damage that they worry about. Road conditions worry them. Trucks get driven into the middle of nowhere—to haul trash to a dump site, to help around the farm, to help Aunt Sue move into her new mobile home, etc. Trucks navigate harsh conditions and extremely rough roads with unwieldy cargo. Tesla’s track record in harsh environments has been spotty at best, so a demo showing that the car can stop a bullet isn’t all that helpful unless you are Mad Max.

It also looks as though the car isn’t as indestructible as the demo was supposed to show. The steel ball thrown at the unbreakable window broke the glass. Twice. Unfortunately, Musk had to spend the rest of the demo with a damaged car in the background.

And then there’s the fakery…

No Musk demo is complete without some fakery and shenanigans. For instance, when Musk revealed the Solar Roof tiles in 2006, it turned out that there was no working product. (the tile he was showing didn’t even have connectors), and his claim that the the house was already solar-powered was a flat-out lie.

So what happened in this demo?

First of all, during the sledgehammer hits, it was obvious that Franz (a Tesla Senior designer) wasn’t actually putting his full effort into it. If you look at the video, he pulls back at the last second in both swings. Some have suggested that the mallet was one specifically designed not to do damage, but we will at least take the fact that the same mallet was used on the example car door and the Tesla as indicating that it can do damage.

Things get more interesting when we get to the broken glass. First of all, note that even after the earlier demo of the ball dropped on the glass, Franz double-confirms with Musk that Musk wants him to throw the steel ball. Despite the fact that he pulled his throw (it was a very wimpy throw), the glass still broke.

Later, Musk released a video on his Twitter feed showing the throw test “working”, but it has two interesting features:

The ball bounced off the window. If you compare the trajectory of the ball that broke the window and the ball that didn’t break the window, the one that bounced was obviously much lighter.

Notice that the door was covered with a blanket. The reason for this is to hide the fact that the door is not closed. You can see this fact for yourself if you watch the door after the ball hits it. It comes out a little, indicating that it is not closed— and therefore the window was not taking the full hit from the ball.

Additionally, the ATV that Tesla said that it had developed was also a fake. Despite the fact that Musk said that they developed the ATV themselves, it was actually a modified Yamaha Raptor 700R SE, as shown here. However, it does look like they changed out the engine for an electric one and replaced a few body panels. So we will give them half points for that.

Finally, the truck itself was something of a fake because it is neither safe nor legal if driven in its current form. It lacks side mirrors, legal brake lighting, and legal lights on the tailgate. Additionally, because previous Tesla design decisions have already caused at least one driver to be burned alive in the car because emergency workers could not get the door open, indestructible side panels with unbreakable glass may not be the best idea ever.

Finally, the price. The “reveal” price is the same as Tesla’s current bottom-of-the-line Model 3. That price just isn’t going to happen. They did the same thing on the Model 3 reveal—they revealed a price ($35k) that was simply unattainable in order to attract preorders. Eventually, to save face, they allowed a few Model 3s to be sold at the originally stated price—and then quickly removed the option.

Overall, Tesla remains Tesla—a company that combines all of the problems of Silicon Valley with all of the problems of traditional car companies.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Tesla’s Cybertruck Runs on … Hype?