Here comes the Cybertruck, loaded with controversy

By David Ferris | 11/30/2023 06:57 AM EST

Whether Tesla’s truck takes off could influence not only the trajectory of the largest U.S. maker of electric vehicles, but who drives those vehicles and what they look like.

Tesla's Cybertruck

The angular, stainless-steel look of Tesla's Cybertruck has drawn positive and negative responses. Tesla

The Cybertruck is an ugly and useless toy made by a narcissist for a bunch of fools. Or it’s a visionary master stroke that will sweep away today’s look-alike cars and usher in a new age of electric design.

Those are the two poles of opinion on Tesla’s new truck, which is slated for release to its first customers Thursday after a four-year wait. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t lean toward one camp or the other.

The Cybertruck, with its stainless-steel armor and brutal angles, is unlike anything else on the road. And Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and the truck’s creator, is currently at a pinnacle of controversy, even for him. Together, the two are scrambling the debate about trucks, vehicle design and Tesla — with implications for where the electric vehicle industry heads next.


Whether the vehicle takes off could influence not only the trajectory of the largest U.S. maker of EVs, but who drives those vehicles and what they look like.

The Cybertruck has pulled off the unusual trick of making foes out of people who would at first glance appear to be fans. They include EV advocates, many of whom detest the vehicle, as well as adherents of the pickup truck.

Meanwhile, other people who never saw themselves in a truck are starting to fancy it. Opinions are so strong that “electric” is the least controversial thing about the Cybertruck.

Typically the conversation about new EVs centers on environmental impacts or driving ranges, but this time it’s shifting to topics like pedestrian safety, automotive aesthetics and what some describe as Musk’s impulsive tendencies.

‘It’s less about people’s perceptions of the truck and more about people’s perceptions of Musk that will affect sales,” said Nicole Sintov, an environmental psychologist at Ohio State University who has studied the politics of electric vehicles.

Roughly 2 million people have put down a $100 reservation for the vehicle since Musk introduced it in 2019.

Even if those reservation holders end up buying — the final price hasn’t been unveiled — they’ll have a long wait. Only 10 vehicles are expected to be delivered at the Cybertruck’s big unveil Thursday in Austin, Texas, and Musk has tamped down expectations for the production ramp.

Reports suggest that making the Cybertruck, at Tesla’s new plant in Austin, has been a monumental challenge. Mass-producing cars out of stainless steel has never been tried, except for the storied DeLorean sports car of the 1980s, and Tesla has struggled to bend the material with the precision required on an assembly line, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In a call with investors last month, Musk said that Tesla had “dug its own grave” with the Cybertruck. On the same call, he said that the company won’t reach its targeted annual run of 250,000 Cybertrucks until 2025.

This backpedaling could be a strategic move by Musk to address the possibility that Cybertruck excitement doesn’t translate into sales.

“If you have [a] vehicle with a small audience and limit production, it will look like it’s superhot for a long period,” said Karl Brauer, an auto analyst for the auto-sales website

So weird it’s normal

As people have gathered in Tesla showrooms around the country this week to see advance versions and gawk at its shiny stainless-steel skin, the Cybertruck has crossed a new milestone among EVs. It is so weird that the “electric” part is just, well, normal.

“If you showed them a Kia EV9, or a Mercedes EQ-whatever, they wouldn’t know it’s an EV,” said Chris Harto, a transportation and energy analyst at Consumer Reports, of the driving public. “Far more people know that the Cybertruck exists than know about 90 percent of the EVs on the market.”

If the axiom is true that no publicity is bad publicity, the Cybertruck has also wrenched the spotlight — once again — onto Tesla.

The electric automaker’s portion of U.S. EV sales declined last quarter to 50 percent, its lowest ever, as other automakers got into the game, according to data from Cox Automotive. And the brand’s sizzle has been fading. It’s been four years since Tesla introduced its last consumer vehicle, the Model Y, and in some quarters Tesla has become vanilla.

“The Toyota Camry of Orange County” is what Brauer, the auto analyst, calls the automaker in his home area in California. He said, “I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Tesla.”

If Tesla’s goal is to turn heads, Brauer added, “the Cybertruck will be that.”

The Cybertruck is also the first EV that has prompted some electric stalwarts to swear off Tesla altogether.

It’s all about the CEO. Since the last time Tesla rolled out a vehicle, Musk has moved himself and the company headquarters to Texas, purchased the social media platform Twitter, and rebranded it as X. He has written and boosted provocative messages that have driven away the platform’s advertisers, most recently reposting an antisemitic trope that generated backlash.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk this month in London. | Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Many of the disillusioned are Tesla’s early buyers who were loyal — until now.

“Tesla got a lot less sexy when it’s CEO [started] making offensive statements,” said Daniel Shugar, a longtime and well-known California solar power executive, in a LinkedIn post about the Cybertruck. “While I was an early supporter of the company and still have my 2008 Roadster and other great [Tesla] cars, I won’t be buying any more.”

“The EV crowd thought of him as Tony Stark,” Buzz Smith, a Texas EV advocate, said about Musk, “and now they’re starting to think of him as Lex Luthor.”

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. On Tesla’s third-quarter earnings call, Musk addressed the challenges of the Cybertruck’s originality.

“If you want to do something radical and innovative and something really special like the Cybertruck, it is extremely difficult because there’s nothing to copy,” he said. “You have to invent not just the car but the way to make the car. So the more uncharted the territory, the less predictable the outcome.”

‘Bad 80’s movie prop’

To assess the public’s views of the Cybertruck, E&E News put the question out on LinkedIn and got a flood of comments showing wide-ranging perspectives on EVs, design and Musk. They don’t answer whether the car will succeed or flop but reveal the factors that will sway future buyers.

On the negative side, the vehicle’s appearance brought many observers to a screeching halt.

“Bad 80’s movie prop from a dystopian sci-fi future,” said substation engineer Richard Domiano. “Very ugly and threatening,” said Justyna Fabrycy, a Canadian accountant. “Hideous,” said a retired physics teacher named Jim Davis. “A cardboard pop-out roach motel,” said John Wharton, a retired facility manager.

For many, the distaste for the vehicle’s simple lines suggested poor judgment by the designers. “A grade schooler could have done it with a crayon,” said Randy Voss, a former salesman in Phoenix. “There is nothing about that design which doesn’t scream ‘built in a shed with whatever was lying around,’” wrote Steven Shepherd, a British corporate recruiter.

From there, several took a short jump to lambasting Musk himself, from whom they suspect the key design decisions flowed, and diversified that into a criticism of his management style and personality.

“I see something that looks like it was designed by a child … and other adults did not have the balls to tell the child the proportions were very poor, they let the child do as he pleased and now are stuck with something they have to make, that has incredibly poor design decisions behind it,” said Eric Strebel, an industrial designer in Michigan.

“I have nothing good to say about Elon. There are tens of thousands of people at Tesla who work very hard and who are responsible for Tesla’s success, not one man with a massive and fragile ego,” wrote Wade Higgins, an EV charging product manager.

For others, the bone they have to pick with the Cybertruck is the “truck” part.

Specifications haven’t been released, but Tesla has promised that the vehicle’s towing capacity, ground clearance and truck bed will match other pickups. But that hasn’t stopped observers from heaping doubt on its functionality and safety.

“Usually great design has some insight or rationale. The truck has striking lines, but to what end?” wrote Page Murray, who works in marketing at Stanford University’s alumni arm. He wondered whether the stainless steel will crumple, as vehicles are supposed to, to absorb impact in a crash to protect the vehicle’s occupants and others, and about the hardened glass, which is supposed to resist shattering. “I fear that many of the new aspects of this car are different for the sake of being different,” he said.

Those observers also wondered about the people who have committed their money to all those preorders.

‘It’s a truck designed by people who know nothing about trucks, for people who know nothing about trucks,” wrote Rob Lisy, a data scientist in Seattle. “Showing up to a real job site in this truck is like wearing snake skin boots to pour concrete,” said Dave Cruikshank, a freelance automotive journalist.

Still others resisted the cultural stance the truck takes.

Musk has played up the vehicle’s supposed indestructibility. At the Cybertruck’s unveiling in 2019, Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, whacked it with a sledgehammer and threw a steel ball at the windows (which broke). Recently, podcast host Joe Rogan shot an arrow at it. But some reject the premise of the dystopian, hostile world that the Cybertruck seems designed to navigate.

“Looks like a combat-mobile. Which I don’t think is good for today’s sort of aggressive natured streets,” wrote an interior designer in Chicago named Loren Stanton. “It is yet another monstrosity of a vehicle with 4 wheels that is unsafe to everyone else not inside the beast. We are going in the wrong direction, if the goal is to save the planet and reduce carbon emissions,” said Loren McDonald, an EV charging data entrepreneur.

An iPhone moment?

For those who are inspired by the Cybertruck, the fact that it looks like nothing else is the best thing about it.

“An attempt to break away from the boring middle,” wrote Markus Kittner, a footwear designer in Germany. Michael Derocher, a former design director at the computer company HP, wrote, “I see a very bold attempt to disrupt the conventional — and frankly stale — state of pickup truck design.”

What the detractors see as crude and childish, the fans see as bold and visionary, using much of the same language that was used to describe the iPhone when it came out in 2007. “Refreshing, bold, sharp, clean, crisp, stylised, futuristic, minimal,” wrote Brandon Hopkins, a design student in London. “Creativity in the extreme. It makes me happy,” said Randy Pobst, a vehicle test driver based in Georgia.

That the Cybertruck seems poised for battle — the very thing that gives some critics pause — is the very thing that gets some excited.

“I don’t want something that looks like a [Ford] F-150, I want something that looks like it belongs on Mars and could eat a Hummer,” Matt Holm, head of the Tesla Owners Club of Austin, said in an interview.

For those who appreciate the vehicle, it’s Musk who deserves the kudos. “It goes to show the risks Elon is willing to take vs the conservative group think other companies merely abide to appease the status quo (filled with ‘business majors’),” wrote Greg Taniguchi, a brand strategist in Denver.

And while the critics see something that isn’t really a truck, the approvers see an opportunity to broaden the definition.

“Not exactly a truck, or an SUV or a car. It does not substitute for any one vehicle. It creates a whole new category of its own,” said Damon Aldrich, an EV charging executive in Southern California. The Cybertruck is “inviting us to reconsider our perceptions of what a truck, and even an electric vehicle, should be,” Nathan Clark, a California artificial intelligence entrepreneur, said in an email.

Others concluded that the conversation about the Cybertruck won’t really begin until it’s out on the road, for people to judge for themselves.

“It is stunning in person. I think a lot of its current detractors will turn into fans once they experience it firsthand,” said David Havasi, a former Tesla employee in Florida.

Starting Thursday, the Cybertruck will emerge from Tesla’s carefully curated hype and into the real world of bird droppings, crumpled fenders and finger smudges, which show up especially prominently on stainless steel.

And the inkblot test that is the Cybertruck will either succeed or fail based in part on preconceived notions about Musk, Tesla, trucks and the particular vision of the electric future that the vehicle represents.

Or as Jason Hill, the design chief at EV maker Aptera, said in a comment, “You are, what you think of the Cybertruck.”