Paul Snyder has mixed feelings about Tesla’s Cybertruck, the first of which will be unveiled during an event for investors and fans on Thursday in Austin, Texas. One of them is horror.
When Tesla revealed the vehicle’s design in November 2019, his first reaction was a question. “Like, what is going on over there?” says Snyder, chair of the Transportation Design program at the College for Creative Design in Detroit. The triangular, flat, sharp-edged thing was, as he puts it, “a total departure from conventions and rules for car design as have been taught in the West for the last 100 years.” The Cybertruck also saw Tesla reject the sleek lines of its latest smash hit, the Model Y SUV, in favor of a design that looked to Snyder almost offensive, exuding martial aggression. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made clear that was intentional. “We want to be the leader in apocalypse technology,” he said back in 2020.
And yet the Cybertruck also evokes awe in Snyder. “I have to respect the fact that it’s the coolest thing some people have ever seen,” he says. While mass production of the truck has yet to begin (and won’t until 2025, according to Musk), Snyder has begun to see its influence in his students’ designs and in the subtle angular shapes in competitors’ concept vehicles. It’s possible the Cybertruck has already changed the world of automotive design, he says.
Four years after its chaotic debut on a stage in Los Angeles—at one point, Tesla’s design head shattered the truck’s supposedly unbreakable armored glass, causing Musk to exclaim loudly, “Oh my fucking god”—car industry watchers say the Cybertruck’s unique design still repels, intrigues, and fascinates. At this point, the biggest surprise might be that the electric-car maker stuck with the thing and doesn’t appear to have significantly softened its design.
“Tesla has shown a concept and wanted to actually make the concept,” says Dale Harrow, chair and director of the Intelligent Mobility Design Center at the Royal College of Art London. In the automotive business, designers create concept cars to showcase new technology and experiment with new vehicle forms and materials. They often look weird—but that’s because they’re not real. Not with the Cybertruck. Tesla has “really stuck to their guns on this,” Harrow says. To see how the latest Cybertrucks look, come back to WIRED.com at 3 pm ET (12 pm PT) on Thursday for our live blog of the Tesla event.
One theme of the Cybertruck’s off-kilter aesthetic is simplicity—straight lines, bare surfaces, sharp corners. Taking that approach actually makes building the thing a lot more complex.
In photos Harrow has seen of the Cybertruck’s final design, its side panels are clean and flat—“a very hard technical thing to achieve,” he says. Straight lines are usually a no-go in automotive design, because surfaces that actually are flat can, depending on the angle and environment, actually look as if they’re sagging or concave. To compensate, Harrow observes, it appears Tesla has placed “crowns” on the final vehicle’s hood, front bumper, and even windshield, small and subtle curves against the vehicle’s dominant lines, to give the design “more surface tension” and prevent it from appearing concave. Perfection can only be achieved with a bit of imperfection.
The vehicle’s stainless steel exterior panels, which Tesla dubs an “exoskeleton” because it provides crash resistance from the outside, likely created production obstacles not present in vehicles made of more conventional materials finished with a coat of paint. Stainless steel resists corrosion and allows Tesla to avoid the pricey, complicated, and environmentally damaging process of painting. (The company’s Fremont, California, factory was fined last year by the US Environmental Protection Agency for air pollution violations related to its paint shop.)
But the material, rarely seen in cars, can be both finicky and expensive. Without paint, Tesla must use technology and very careful handling to create and maintain a perfectly shiny, flat surface, says John Speer, who directs the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center at the Colorado School of Mines. Steel, produced in coils, can also “spring back” after its formed, warping the body panel—especially the sort of high-strength steel used in the Cybertruck, which Tesla has advertised can resist bullets and arrows. “The higher strength the steel is, the more challenging it is to make an exact perfect shape time after time after time, with no gaps,” says Speer. This is exactly the consistency needed to produce lots of cars of uniform quality.
Indeed: When, last month, Tesla head designer Franz von Holzhausen showed up at a Malibu, California, event with a matte-black Cybertruck, some internet observers were horrified by photos showing significant gaps between the vehicle’s body panels, potentially caused by the challenges of shaping stainless steel. (The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the truck’s stainless steel had proved hard to manipulate.) Photos of the production Cybertrucks staged in Tesla showrooms this week show few quality issues.
Production issues have plagued the Cybertruck. Tesla initially planned first deliveries for late 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic got in the way and the date was pushed to the following year. By early 2022, an “alpha” preproduction version of the vehicle had serious issues with suspension, body sealing, noise levels, handling, and braking, according to an internal engineering report leaked to the German publication Handelsblatt and shared with WIRED. Around the same time, Tesla said production was delayed to early 2023, then to late 2023. On Thursday, Tesla will deliver a handful of trucks. But Musk has said that production won’t begin in earnest until 2024, with a goal of producing 250,000 trucks a year by 2025.
“We dug our own grave with Cybertruck,” Musk told investors last month, saying the amount of new technology in the truck complicated the production process. He estimated it would take 12 to 18 months for the truck to contribute to Tesla’s cash flow.
The vehicle’s unique look means its reception is hard to predict. Musk reported last month that more than 1 million people have spent $100 to reserve a Cybertruck, even without knowing its final price and specifications. Still, a number of electric trucks have beaten Tesla’s to the mass market, including the Ford F-150 Lightning, the Rivian R1T, and the Chevrolet Silverado EV. Alistair Weaver, editorial director of the automotive publication Edmunds.com, says it’s unclear how the Cybertruck will measure up to that competition. “Is this a working American truck, or is this just going to be a curiosity for Tesla fanboys?”
Paul Snyder wonders whether the Cybertruck’s design might break, well, everything. Some designers hold there is one universal standard of beauty, derived from forms in nature. Depart from those and you’re not a good designer. But Cybertruck is not natural. “It has been completely dismissed as a disaster of car design,” he says. But what if it becomes a smash hit? “Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?” Snyder says. “That’s the existential part.”
Jeremy White contributed reporting.
Source : Wired