Several years ago, there was an episode of BBC’s Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson attempted to make a Mercedes S Class into a version of Mary Arden’s cottage, on wheels. At one point, beyond the usual malarkey, the designer posed with making Clarkson’s dreams a reality exclaimed ‘this isn’t “Design”, it is set design’. I had a similar feeling watching Elon Musk unveil the Tesla Cybertruck.
Musk told those arrayed at the unveiling that he was sick of the tired, century-old, appearance of pickup trucks. He showed an image of several pickups, debadged, to underline their generic, boringness.
The reveal of the Cybertruck was accompanied by some astonished reactions. The internet went into meme overdrive, comparing the truck to the under-rendered polygonfest cars from video games of the late ‘90s. An executive of Ford USA posted a gif on Twitter mocking Tesla’s attempt to move into the pickup space.
Tesla defenders were quick to defend the design. Eventually, followers of the company were revelling in the delusion that the Cybertruck was amazing design. Michael Fisher, a respected tech’ YouTuber claimed ‘A bold push into the future carries an implied permission for a commensurately aggressive design’, despite pulling some quite hilarious expressions at the unveiling. Just check out the comments on this tweet by tech’ YouTuber Marques Brownlee for similiarly odd reasoning. Some observers are now even lauding the design for its ‘ecological efficiencies’. This is post hoc reasoning by observers who are desperate to see the innovation in Tesla’s philosophy. They are missing the point.
A brief history of auto design will show that the Tesla Cybertruck should not be considered a piece of great, daring, modern car design. Cars like the Aston Martin Lagonda, produced from 1976, were designed to shock and to inspire. Its low-slung nose and its sharp lines were meant to point, sometimes literally, to a car of the future. Its interior was infused with tech’ touches (many of which went wrong). Similarly, the earlier Lancia Stratos from 1970 combined rally-ready technology with edgy styling. These were carefully considered design risks by established design houses.
The epitome of this sort of design is the Alfa Romeo SZ, designed by Zagato, the short lived piece of edgy late twentieth century design in 1989. This was a deliberately experimental sport car, designed to handle quite extreme G forces with a potent engine up front. It’s design was still intended to be beautiful.
Contrary to the Tesla sphere online, the Cybertruck design is not taken from the Lagonda/Stratos/SZ school. The Cybertruck is a cartoon car that aims to make computer game cars real. Several years ago, Elon Musk told followers on Twitter that the truck would look like something from a cyberpunk movie. At the unveiling, members of the Tesla team disembarked from the first Cybertruck clad in leather and platform boots. The quad bike in the flatbed continued the same cyberpunk aesthetic.
So what is going on? Tesla has designed a number of interesting but largely traditional vehicles in the past. Indeed, the company’s lead design, Franz Von Holzhausen, comes from traditional auto design background. In one interview last year, Von Holzhausen admitted that the company’s designs were moving to more radical ground and that ‘we made the early cars less distinct from rivals’ but that this had only produced the radical result of removing the front grilles on the Model S and Model 3. The issue is Tesla’s management.
Despite hiring a new chairman in 2018, Musk still steers the ship at Tesla. The company has remarkable turnover of staff, its corporate culture is toxic and Musk uses his Twitter platform to publicly attack individuals, seemingly for a joke.
The Cybertruck is a reflection of Tesla’s corporate hubris, its inability to contain Musk’s ego and the bro-culture echo chamber in which it resides. The Cybertruck’s unabashed bare metal exoskeleton is an ironic reference to the ill-fated DeLorean of the 1980s, yet nobody in the audience seemed to appreciate the reference. Check out how many women are on stage during the unveiling to get a sense of the company’s viewson gender. Musk gelled his hair for the truck reveal so he looked like a cyberpunk villain. The Cybertruck is what happens when a man like Musk runs a company worth $240 a share with no checks and balances.
Despite Tesla stock falling after the Cybertruck reveal, the company has received around 2o0,000 preorders (basically a small amount out down that is refundable). The Cybertruck will appeal to menchildren for whom Musk’s delusions are expensive escapism: those who want to roll around town in a car that looks like it is from a video game. It looks like the future for those who are boisterous enough, who can afford it and who want to use a car to brag about their manhood. And with Tesla’s famous $0 marketing budget, the Cybertruck has given the company the oxygen it needs to stay atop the news cycle. The money it takes from deposit income will provide more liquidity for the company, too.
The Cybertruck is Musk in overdrive. It shows us the Tesla echo chamber of likeminded bros who just cannot say no to Mr Musk and his childish adventures. It gives the company even more attention. It gets folks intrigued by electric transportation (and that can only be a good thing). Despite all of these things, one thing is for sure :the Tesla Cybertruck is not good design.