Tesla’s Cybertruck is coming soon. Perhaps.
More than three years after Elon Musk stunned the auto industry with an electric pickup truck that looked more like a stealth fighter than a way to haul two-by-quarters and drywall, Tesla said last week it was building of the vehicle will start by the end of 2023.
The announcement has helped Tesla’s share price rebound, but also reignited a debate over whether the often-delayed pickup truck, dubbed the Cybertruck, is a work of genius or a testament to Mr. Musk’s hubris.
It would be very unlike Mr. Musk, the CEO of Tesla, to build a pickup that looks similar to 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 truck, just as Tesla turned conventional auto industry opinion on its head by proving that battery-powered vehicles could be practical and viable.
Tesla touts that a top-of-the-line version of the truck can tow 14,000 pounds and accelerate faster than a Porsche 911. The cybertruck’s doors open automatically when the driver approaches.
The truck is important because it will be Tesla’s first new passenger car in three years and could help breathe life into a model lineup that some buyers feel is obsolete. Established automakers like Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have released several new electric models since the Model Y, Tesla’s newest car, went on sale in early 2020.
But the Cybertruck is so behind schedule that some auto pundits are wondering if it’s become yet another example of Mr. Musk’s penchant for pushing technological boundaries to the brink of disaster. In 2018, his determination to build a highly automated assembly line for the Model 3 sedan led to “production hell” and almost brought the company to a halt before deciding to pursue more standardized manufacturing processes.
This time, it’s the use of stainless steel for the Cybertruck’s bodywork that has industry experts shaking their heads.
Stainless steel resists corrosion and does not require painting, eliminating cost and the need for environmentally harmful chemical coatings. But it is also expensive and difficult to form and weld. Stainless steel tends to be heavier than the steel used in most other cars, reducing range.
There’s a reason only one automaker has ever attempted to mass-produce a car with a stainless steel body. That was DeLorean, which went bankrupt after building fewer than 10,000 cars best known for starring as the time machine in the Back to the Future movies.
“Musk is an example of how fetishizing tech startups and their executives can eventually lead those executives to make bad decisions,” said Patrick McQuown, executive director of entrepreneurship at Towson University in Maryland, in an E -Mail. “For me, the insistence on stainless steel is a manifestation of his belief that he has a unique understanding of the market and that the market will buy anything he offers because it’s from the mind of Elon Musk.”
Stainless steel is more expensive than the steel used in most automobiles because it contains chromium and often other high-demand ingredients such as nickel and molybdenum. Stainless steel’s 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. It also requires special welding techniques.
Those challenges likely explain why Tesla is two years behind schedule in manufacturing the Cybertruck, which the company plans to produce at its Austin, Texas, facility.
“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’re stuck in a corner.”
Tesla said in an earnings report last week that it would start production of the Cybertruck later this year. But Mr. Musk qualified that statement during a conference call with analysts and investors, saying the company wouldn’t start mass production of the vehicle until 2024. When Tesla unveiled the Cybertruck, it said the vehicle would go on sale in 2021.
The vehicle “won’t make a significant contribution to the bottom line” in 2023, Mr Musk said, “but will next year.”
Tesla’s delays allowed traditional automakers to bring it to market with electric pickups, leaving Tesla with nothing to offer the many Americans who prefer pickups over cars or sport utility vehicles.
Buyers demand electric trucks. Ford has stopped taking reservations for its F-150 Lightning, a battery-powered version of its best-selling vehicle, because it can’t make vehicles fast enough. Rivian, a newer electric vehicle company, is also struggling to produce enough of its pickup truck, the R1T, to meet demand.
GM’s GMC division sells a Hummer pickup, but in relatively small numbers. And Chevrolet is expected to start delivering an electric Silverado later this year. Ram has announced that it will launch a battery-powered 1500 truck next year.
“The first-mover advantage that Tesla could have used is completely gone,” Mr Rajkumar said. “It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed.”
Tesla has shared virtually no details on how it will address the challenges of working with stainless steel, one of which is safety. The steel used in most cars is designed to crumple on impact, absorbing energy and protecting passengers. Stainless steel does not crumple as easily, leaving passengers more exposed to the force of an impact.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
There is evidence that the truck will use a stainless steel formula that’s the same or similar to that used by SpaceX, the rocket company led by Mr Musk. Charles Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX, holds the same title at Tesla.
Mr. Kuehmann co-founded QuesTek, a materials design firm, and worked on a design team at Apple. Its reputation as a pioneer in the use of new materials gives some engineering experts confidence that Tesla has developed an alloy that will meet the challenges of stainless steel.
Mr. Kuehmann did not respond to a request for comment.
The Cybertruck body doesn’t have the curves typical of most vehicles, instead being made from flat sheets of steel that experts say will likely be laser cut and then welded together, eliminating the need for powerful stamping machines.
“Broadly speaking, the concept could make sense,” said Kip Findley, a professor of metallurgy and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has done research on advanced steel for vehicles. “It drives steel development and makes people think differently about steel, which is good.”
“But there are some unanswered questions,” added Mr. Findley. This includes how the owners repair damage to the Cybertruck’s bodywork, which Tesla calls an “exoskeleton.” Stainless steel dents less easily than traditional body steel, but once damaged it is more difficult to get back into shape.
As the only company to mass-produce stainless steel vehicle bodies, Tesla won’t be able to leverage the economies of scale shared by other automakers. That could make the truck more expensive to manufacture.
When Tesla introduced the Cybertruck, it said the starting price was just under $40,000. But the final price is widely expected to be much higher.
Tesla is taking reservations for the Cybertruck costing $100 without naming a price for the vehicle. Tesla didn’t say how many reservations it’s amassed.
Last but not least, the Cybertruck will stand out in a crowded field.
Stainless steel auto bodies are “certainly possible,” said Wei Xiong, associate professor of metallurgy and materials design at the University of Pittsburgh, noting that computer-aided design is allowing researchers to develop high-performance materials much faster than a few years ago. “I can understand why he wants to go there.”