Tesla Cybertruck: Criticizing The Look (Barely) Misses The Real Problem

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Tesla Cybertruck reveal

I know I’m not going to be popular among Tesla fans for this, but it needs to be said: there are some serious issues with Cybertruck that need addressed.

Don’t get me wrong here, though. I do think it’s kind of cool, in its own way. The specs are amazing, and for many people, it will make a great vehicle that does what they need it to do. It looks like it will have great potential for off-road driving, and having a matching ATV would be pretty cool. That is … for people who like its looks, at least.

Yes, the principal complaint we’ve been hearing about Cybertruck has been about its looks, but that criticism manages to just barely miss the real issue that’s going to hurt it: form factor.

Looks Don’t Evolve In A Vacuum

Digital cameras are a great example of this. When the first consumer-grade digital cameras came out, there was a lot of experimentation with form factor. Without film, and often without the need for a viewfinder, companies were looking for ways to use this newfound flexibility to have room for innovation.

One great example was a camera my dad used for real estate: The Kodak DC40.

Instead of having a “legacy” SLR or other film shape, this camera was designed like a pair of binoculars. In theory, this could work, but it just didn’t catch on. It turned out the ergonomics for picture taking just weren’t there. It was uncomfortable and unwieldy.

Kodak, along with all of the others, had to figure out that the form factor of a camera wasn’t just “legacy.” The shape of a camera had evolved over time to fit the needs of the users, and everything was shaped like it was for a reason. A sudden departure from existing form factors, while kind of fun and interesting, didn’t serve photographers as well as the “traditional” shapes did.

Trucks Evolved Like They Did For A Reason

Many people use their trucks for commuting, occasional trail riding, and occasional moving. For the most part, it’s a large car. If that’s you, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to realize that casual truck owners are only a small part of a much larger market, and trucks are designed to serve that wider market, not just your needs, to maximize economies of scale.

When a manufacturer can make the same basic truck for everyone from the casual truck user to professionals of all kinds, it helps with economy of scale. The more they can sell of a truck, the cheaper the parts from suppliers will be. The more of a particular truck they can make, the more vehicles they’ll be able to spread all the one-time costs of design and engineering over. All of this leads to better pricing to compete with the competition, and better profits.

Even a little Toyota pickup truck can do amazing things with its modularity. Limiting designs with unibody construction, while well meaning, reduces your options. Photo by @a_turtles_tale/instagram. Used with permission.

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One way they can sell to a wider market is to make the truck modular. The frame, the cab, and the bed are all separate pieces that can be swapped out for something else. Remove the bed, and you can replace it with a box, a flat bed, towing equipment, living space (RVs and overlanders), dump beds, giant toolboxes, a different step-side cab, a giant tank to hold poop, or even the Bluth Company’s staircase for the jet they don’t have anymore. One truck, many uses.

On top of that, you can have differing cabs (2-door, 4-door, extended cab) and different length beds, all with lowered design costs for each variant. Then there are the SUV versions, that swap the bed for a lengthened body without changing the design of the front or the frame.

When it comes time to redesign, modularity makes this much easier, too. Instead of throwing the whole design away, they can leave the frame mostly (or entirely) alone and just redesign the cab and bed. Sometimes, the redesign is just the cab.

There are also reasons manufacturers’ trucks all look quite similar. Beds are established in their common shape to accommodate side loading, fifth-wheel hitches, tool boxes, side panels (via stake pockets), slide-in campers, and many other things. Change the shape of the bed, and you lose a lot of the expected functionality. Cabs could be more aerodynamic, but they need to be prepared to haul the maximum load up the steepest hills in the hottest weather, and that requires a big radiator. EVs may change that a bit, but they’re still going to have big cooling requirements for the above scenario.

Either way, the back of the cab is going to need to end abruptly and not have a sail panel if it’s going to be compatible with all of the different configurations it needs to come in without getting in the way.

Looks Matter, Too

When it comes to economies of scale, looks matter too. You can have a very disco design that will sell well to certain segments of the population (and give big preorder numbers), but if you can’t get broader appeal, you’ll struggle to get the economies of scale that “legacy auto” gets with its trucks as presently designed.

I get that pushing the strength of Cybertruck out to the skins made for some serious cost savings, which will help, but it came at a cost of keeping sales from spreading more widely into the commercial and industrial markets. Honda already figured some of this out with the Ridgeline, and eventually ended up going with a more traditional look, even with a unibody.

Why This is a Wasted Opportunity

Tesla Cybertruck
Yes, you can add a tent, but options are still very limited.

While fanboys are quick to point out the number of preorders (assuming that doesn’t include people who accidentally ordered multiples due to technical issues), that doesn’t tell us much about the long-term potential of the vehicle. You have to keep in mind that Ford sells that many trucks in 2–3 months, and people are paying full price to buy these, not putting just $100 on the table.

Just getting a relatively small slice of that market, with potential to grow, would have been great news for Tesla and EVs in general.

I’m not saying that Tesla couldn’t have done the Cybertruck (telling Elon Musk “no” seems to be impossible), but they should have done it alongside some other pickup prototypes. One thing sure to be a hot seller would have been a Model 3 ute, like Truckla. People are spending thousands of dollars to convert not only Teslas, but other cars like the VW Jetta, to little pickups. Then, a traditional body-and-battery-on-frame pickup would have appealed to the traditional and commercial markets.

Had they rolled out three vehicles with beds onto the stage, they’d have accomplished something much more and wouldn’t have had the stock drops they had the next day. It’s not too late, though. A modular pickup and a little sport ute could easily be prepped for a big announcement, along with a second chance to test those windows without breaking them.

The Tesla Truck Trio would be pretty cool!

 


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1955 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba