Sorry Tesla Fam: Your Cybertruck Isn’t a Truck, It’s an SUV
I, along with tens of thousands of others, joined in to watch the live stream event where Tesla unveiled their new Cybertruck. Tesla made a good show of the event, using smoke, laser lights, and holographic cyber girl projections, but I’m not one for theatrics. Give me the substance.
Elon Musk walked out to much fanfare, and he immediately explained Tesla’s mission with their Cybertruck: They need to provide an all-electric offering that eats into the sales of gas-guzzling trucks that other automakers sell by the millions. Elon was also clear that they wanted to redefine what a truck was after nearly 100 years of the same modular, body-on-frame truck design, so Tesla came up with something entirely new. Their new Cybertruck is a unibody construction that uses a high-strength steel “exoskeleton” to provide its structural integrity.
There’s only one problem with Tesla’s new, innovative “truck” design: There’s already a classification for it. It’s called an “SUV.” In this story, I’ll describe why the Cybertruck isn’t actually a truck but rather another SUV in Tesla’s lineup, and I will explain why modularity is an essential requirement for trucks.
I Don’t Care that the Cybertruck Is Ugly
Let me be clear here. My critiques of Tesla’s Cybertruck have nothing to do with aesthetics. Especially in the realm of work trucks, function should never be sacrificed for form. In the case of Tesla’s Cybertruck; however, my concerns all link back to how well it meets the functional needs of a truck.
In terms of form following function, though, Tesla has historically valued the latter. This is evident in both the designs of their other vehicles and the formats of vehicles they select. Because Tesla focuses on all-electric vehicles, they know that the energy available to propel the vehicle is limited and does not replenish quickly. That is why Tesla’s Model S and Model 3 are sleek, low-roofed sedans (one of the most aerodynamic vehicle formats), and it’s why Tesla went to such great lengths to make their Model X SUV as aerodynamic as possible.
In the case of a traditional truck, it is simply not possible to make the shape aerodynamic enough to provide the electric range customers would expect when using a battery pack size that people would be willing to pay for or able to afford. In a recent story, I described a conversation with Robert Bollinger, CEO of Bollinger Motors, who explained how difficult it would be to make a profit selling an electric truck with a 120 kWh battery for $75,000.
Now Tesla does have economies of scale working for them, and I expect their top of the line Cybertruck (MSRP of $69,900) to have a battery close to 120 kWh; however, the 200 miles of range that pack would provide in a traditional truck style such as Bollinger’s B1 simply wouldn’t be good enough for Tesla. So Tesla changed the entire format of their Cybertruck, resulting in a sloped front and covered, angled bed that provides a pseudo Kammback tail. I have no doubt that as the Cybertruck increases speed, the front will dip, reducing the sharp angle at the top of the roof to maintain laminar flow along the boundary layer across the bed, which will minimize aerodynamic drag and maximize range.
That aerodynamic advantage is, of course, only possible when the Cybertruck is used as a car or SUV, meaning the Cybertruck’s bed cover must be closed, it can’t be carrying a significant load, and it can’t be towing trailer. Essentially, the Cybertruck is designed to be used like a hatchback SUV, limited to whatever cargo can fit under the covered bed, and any deviation from that closed bed configuration will result in a significant reduction of real-world range at any speeds over about 45 mph.
So are these aerodynamic tricks to eke out more miles of rated range a gimmick? That’s really up to the individual consumer to decide, but if you do plan to use a Cybertruck for actual truck work, I suggest that you don’t lend much credence to Tesla’s 250, 300, and 500 mile range claims.
Being a Truck Is Not Just about Cargo Capacity
Elon was quick to point out how the capacities for the Cybertruck exceed the Ford F-150’s capacities; however, having a lot of cargo capacity doesn’t necessarily make a vehicle a truck. The Ford Expedition has more cargo space than either the Tesla Cybertruck or the Ford F-150. For a truck, how you access cargo is as important as how much cargo the truck can hold.
Because of the Cybertruck’s sloping bed walls and “frunk,” it actually has more “lockable exterior storage” with a 6.5’ bed (100 cu/ft) than a Ford F-150 with an 8’ bed (77.4 cu/ft), and the Cybertruck’s 3,500 lb payload capacity is more than anything Ford has listed for the F-150. But those angled upper bed walls are where things get tricky. Not only do the higher bed walls make it more difficult to access cargo from the side of the vehicle, they also limit how much the cargo hold can be modified for different needs.
If an F-150 owner with a 6.5’ bed wants to more than double their bed’s cargo capacity, they can easily install a two-foot high sidewall. If that same F-150 owner needs to stack a ton of hay bales, they can simply swap out the standard bed with a flatbed. If a contractor needs a utility bed to keep different tools separated and locked in different locations, they can install a utility bed. Again, the purpose of a truck is to be customizable and modular.
Just how much modification will a Cybertruck owner be able to do? If those sidewalls are actually structural, Cybertruck owners might be very limited.
Watch how Tesla Cybertruck sizes up with Model and a conventional pickup truck like the 2020 Ford F-150 and click to subscribe to Torque News for daily automotive news analysis.
Trucks Must Also Be Able to Tow
Another Cybertruck capacity that Tesla emphasized was a 14,000 lb towing capacity, which – surprise, surprise – happens to be right around 1,000 lbs more than the highest rated F-150. While that’s impressive, it leaves me with a few questions. In particular, what, exactly, can a Cybertruck even tow? Yes, we know that if you hook a Cybertruck up to an F-150 bumper-to-bumper, the Cybertruck will be able to pull the F-150 down the road. But let’s get past the theatrics for a moment.
While a many cars and SUVs are capable of “towing,” they are limited to small, light trailers that hook up to the bumper, typically with tongue weights of no more than a few hundred pounds. But that’s not usually what truck owners think of when they hear “towing.” Sure, hooking a tow hitch up to the bumper is one option; however, when you’re looking to tow 10,000 lbs or more, you’re usually not hooking up to the bumper. For heavier loads, most truck drivers prefer to tow with either a fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch.
Fifth wheels are most often used as campers or RVs, but they can easily top out at as much as 20,000 lbs. A majority of fifth wheels, though, are well under the Cybertruck’s 14,000 lb towing capacity, but it’s not clear to me whether the Cybertruck’s angled side walls will allow for a fifth wheel. On numerous occasions, we’ve had to jackknife our fifth wheel to make tight turns and clear obstacles, and a Cybertruck very likely wouldn’t have been able to make those maneuvers at all.
While I have less personal experience with gooseneck trailers, that is the format of choice for my friends who regularly haul and load heavy equipment. A gooseneck trailer should have less clearance issues on the Cybertruck than a fifth wheel trailer would, but my question here is whether a gooseneck hitch plate (or fifth wheel base rails for that matter) can even be installed in the bed of a Cybertruck. All of the hitches I’ve had installed were bolted down through the frame and often were welded in place.
Did Tesla account for that? With its unibody construction and skateboard battery, I have my doubts. So other than a basic hitch on the bumper, I’m not confident in the Cybertruck’s ability to actually tow in the way a traditional truck can.
Traditional Truck Design Ain’t Broke, and the Cybertruck Didn’t Fix It
Elon claimed that Tesla was reinventing the truck by abandoning one of its foundations (modularity), but true creativity and innovation come from acknowledging, accepting, and even embracing constraints, not by running from them. We’ve seen this from Tesla before, unfortunately. When they are incapable of making a system work, they abandon it, and revert to something that is within their core competencies (for instance, the two-speed gearbox in the original Roadster that Tesla eventually gave up on and replaced with a single reduction gear).
Most often, Tesla’s marketing is able to spin these redirections as “innovations,” but in the case of an electric truck, the stakes have been raised. Tesla finally has competition in the electric vehicle space, a market that they previously dominated. Now, however, they are facing competition from Rivian (with its financial backing from Amazon, Ford, and others) as well as from Workhorse Group (who just bought GM’s shuttered Lordstown Assembly plant). GM has also jumped in the mix, announcing that their electric trucks will be ready for market by 2021.
If I had to guess, Tesla knew that they were losing the race to produce electric trucks, and they didn’t have time to develop a truly dedicated truck chassis. Instead, they modified an existing chassis (most likely the Model 3’s steel chassis) by adding a high-strength steel “exoskeleton” that not only provided the structure and volumetric capacity but also lowered costs. That folded stainless steel exterior gave the Cybertruck a more streamlined, aerodynamic shape (which enables Tesla to save money by using smaller batteries), and it also eliminates the need for expensive paint facilities.
So while Tesla’s design choices enabled them to catch up with their electric truck competitors, it also required them to abandon modularity. To be fair, some of my Cybertruck concerns also apply to Rivian’s R1T electric truck model (specifically, issues about spare tire placement and the ability to install a hitch); however, RJ Scaringe, CEO of Rivian, emphasized in a recent interview that their powertrains were designed to be modular and allow for a number of different vehicle formats. Likewise, with its long history of producing trucks of all varieties, I am sure that GM is also well aware of the continuing need for modular truck platforms. GM recently announced that their 2021 electric trucks would be addressing the needs of both lifestyle and traditional truck buyers.
Comparing the Cybertruck to these traditional truck designs is like comparing a mobile home to a modular home. The former builds the foundation into the house itself, leaving its occupants to simply accept it for what it is. The latter provides a foundation on which the occupants can add or remove features and functionalities as they see fit. Modularity is a truck’s singular, defining characteristic, so abandoning modularity isn’t innovation, it’s giving up.
So Is the Tesla Cybertruck All Bad?
No, of course it isn’t. Just like most new vehicles that are purchased, the Cybertruck should meet the functional needs of the people who would buy it without any major adjustments or changes. After all, a majority of people only really need a car that can get them from one place to another, and most people who buy trucks could make due with an SUV instead. Even for me, the Cybertruck would meet 90% of my truck needs, but that still doesn’t make it a truck because the truth is, most SUVs could meet a majority of my current truck needs too.
However, I’m really a light truck user at this point, and I put less than 1,000 miles a year on our aging F-150 4x4. When I look most of my friends and neighbors, though, they are very heavy truck users. For them, I just don’t see how a Cybertruck would meet their needs. It’s not modular, and it’s not even clear to what extent the Cybertruck could be modified. So my farmer friends hauling bulldozers on gooseneck trailers and rancher friends with flatbeds stacked with alfalfa bales probably won’t find much use for the Cybertruck.
On the other hand, those who want a lifestyle truck, want to make a statement, or don’t truly need the capability or flexibility a traditional truck provides could find the Tesla Cybertruck very compelling. It should be a very capable offroading SUV with good stats: 16 inches of ground clearance, a 35 degree approach angle, and a 28 degree departure angle. Those stats don’t really matter as much for trucks; their stock configurations are already more than sufficient for accessing campgrounds and hiking trails. Heck, with 6 inches of ground clearance and a short wheelbase, my Chevy Bolt EV is already more than capable of a majority of the “offroading” Americans tend to do.
Just as I’m not a huge fan of theatrics, I’m also not a particularly fond of labels. For most people, there is no functional difference between an SUV and a truck; however, as someone who has worked with and used trucks for most of my life, form me, there are substantive differences. While I’m always happy to see a new electric vehicle offering to provide consumers with more options to switch away from fossil fuels, I’m also pragmatic about the actual needs of customers.
Frankly, I do not like referring to Tesla’s Cybertruck as a “truck” because that is not what it is. It is, by definition, a sport utility vehicle. While the Cybertruck can serve some of the required functions of a truck, it is very limited in that role, and it is held back by its design.
I have no doubt that it will have a strong following (such is the power of Tesla’s brand and grassroots marketing), but it is catering to people who do not actually need a truck. For that market, the primary considerations are aesthetics, features, price, and wow factor. I’m sure that most people who end up buying a Cybertruck will be happy with it, but unfortunately, if Tesla’s mission was to replace traditional trucks, I think the Cybertruck was a swing and a miss. Well, other than the glass. That was a definite hit.
About The Author
Eric Way focuses on reporting expert opinion on GM brand electric vehicles at Torque News. Eric is also an instructional designer and technical writer with more than 15 years of writing experience. He also hosts the News Coulomb video blog, which focuses on electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, and renewable energy. Eric is an active member of the EV Advocates of Ventura County, a volunteer organization focused on increasing the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. You can follow Eric on News Coulomb Youtube, on Facebook at @NewsCoulomb as well as on Twitter at @eway1978.