Let’s settle a few issues right up front. Pickup trucks have been defined in exactly the same way for almost 100 years with a three-box design-hood, cabin, and bed. In fact, it takes just seven lines to draw them-up, across, up, across, down, across and down. Now comes the Tesla Cybertruck, trying not only to disrupt one of the most un-disruptable segments on the planet with an entirely new look.
From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense that Tesla wants to take a crack at the largest and most profitable segment in the U.S. As unique and jarring as this new offering is, there are plenty of examples in our collective automotive memories of distinctive trucks trying to disrupt the segment. Models like the Chevrolet Avalanche, Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Hummer H2 SUT, GMC Envoy XUV, and even the Pontiac Aztec offered unique answers to problem-solving questions.
The problem, of course, is that when talking about this particular segment, these buyers (especially full-size pickup buyers) are some of the most risk-averse purchasers around. Maybe no other vehicle makes this point better than the polarizing first-gen Honda Ridgeline, which, in order to survive, had to move to a more traditional pickup truck look in its second-generation design.
Why We Buy Trucks
To fully understand why full-size pickup trucks (and to a certain extent, full-size SUVs) are so popular, you have to know that their buyers, generally speaking have to carry big families, some pull heavy trailers, others haul loads in the bed, and many have to do both work and play duty.
In addition, although these particular buyers may understand the tradeoffs they’re making better than buyers in any other segment, they are the least interested in making any compromises. Some buyers look for a full-size vehicle to prevent them from having to say they can’t do something they might want to do in the future. They’re acutely aware they have to make tradeoffs, but they ultimately don’t want their vehicle choice to be the thing that limits them from what they have to or want to do next weekend, vacation, or project.
Getting back to the Cybertruck, possibly the biggest hurdle headed its way is that most truck owners don’t have much experience driving electric cars; they just see compromises. Add big weight in the bed of an already heavy electric vehicle and you lose range; add a heavy trailer to the back of an electric vehicle and you lose more range; now add in high altitude and/or extreme high or low temperatures and your abilities drop again.
Whether the actual loss of range in these circumstances would be as significant as expected is, for some potential buyers, meaningless. For a new-truck buyer, perception is reality.
There’s Something Here
Even so, quite a few design and engineering aspects of the Tesla Cybertruck could resonate with old-school and modern truck buyers.
There’s no question the exterior design is meant to recall both a futuristic and recognizably military (meaning function-first) outline. The hulking size with bulging shoulders and massive wheel arches imply a confident special-forces stance.
The more tangible and traditionally “pickup” activities (like hauling and towing) could be a sticking point for quite a few truck buyers, but the Cybertruck’s up-to-14,000-pound towing capacity could help, not to mention a few specially devised real-world on-the-road hauling and towing demonstrations. As you might expect, electric vehicles don’t drive like traditional trucks at all, but even the most jaded truck buyer understands the value of being able to carry several thousand pounds or tow like a three-quarter-ton pickup.
It Has a Bed
The single most defining characteristic to any work truck is the bed area and much of the Cybertruck’s success or failure will hinge on their understanding of what buyers want from their cargo area. A very wise engineer once told us, “Show me the bed of any pickup, and I’ll tell you how they expect their buyers will use it.” In this highly competitive arena, the more versatility, the more use. The Cybertruck’s bed looks, in some ways, to be the largest in the segment (there are no intrusive fenderwell bumps), but we have no doubt there will be discussions as to whether it’s more of a pickup truck or a massive covered cargo area (isn’t that a trunk?) on an SUV. With the stainless-steel bed cover closed, it offers huge lockable storage, and when open there are several tiedown points and hidden storage bins to make any gear-heavy bike, motorcycle, snowmobile or ATV hauler quite happy. As versatile as the bed might be, the cover does create issues for those who might want to add roofracks to accommodate even more lifestyle gear, something quite popular with the more outdoor-active buyers.
More Sticking Points
Other aspects of this new truck that could prove problematic for skeptical truck buyers are underneath the truck. First off, Tesla decided to go with five-lug rims, which implies it’s less capable, less rugged, offering lighter-duty axles and hubs when compared to six- or eight-lug options. After a quick talk with their lead engineer, we were told this was more a of a practical decision, due in large part to their use of five-lug wheels on the current-gen Model X, which could expand wheel choices for both vehicles down the road.
Another possible sticking point for some traditional truck buyers could be the four-corner air suspension (a stronger version of the system used on the Model X), typically more aligned with car-like/passenger-only ride and handling dynamics and capabilities. As of today, the vast majority of full-size pickups and SUVs are suspended with either steel leaf or coil springs, usually setup to carrying some kind of heavier loads, whereas air suspensions are typically more aligned with smoother (and empty) requirements. Of course, this issue could be minimized by the fact that many big-rig Class 8 over-the-road haulers use primary or supplemental air-ride setups, as well as some global HD military troop carriers.
In fact, putting the Cybertruck on a lift could impress many truck buyers, who will see the long-travel droop of the massive four-wheel independent A-arms the air suspension allows and also the beefy sub-structure surrounding the front and rear electric motors. Nothing says HD or bulletproof like a sub-frame of tubed steel. Not only will those electric motor casings provide physical protection, ready to push logs and pieces of granite out of the way when navigating deep Alaskan river crossings, but the adjustable ride height will deliver plenty of ground clearance over obstacles as well. (head here for our thoughts on how the Cybertruck may fare off-road)
With so many companies getting ready to jump into this electric truck market (Atlis, Bollinger, Havelaar, Rivian, Workhorse, and more), and Ford just releasing its Mustang Mach-E electric SUV, there couldn’t be a better time for Tesla to drop a monstrous, military-looking machine into the deep end of the pool. We’ll know much more after we get a chance to thoroughly test this truck in all the proper ways, with all the proper loads. More to come.