A Deep Look At The Design Of Tesla’s Cybertruck

A Deep Look At The Design Of Tesla’s Cybertruck

I just want to be clear, right off the bat, that I love weird automotive design. I’m also quite fond of simple, possibly even crude designs. I’m not afraid of new, even strange automotive ideas. And yet, somehow, I still can’t even with this new Tesla Cybertruck, a truck that finally answers the question of what would a truck look like if it was designed on a Nintendo 64 and built in a country with zero ability to stamp steel. That’s a question, it should be noted, that no one fucking asked.

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Tesla’s Cybertruck made a hell of an impact when it was first revealed but I’m not entirely sure that impact was a good one, like the twin impacts that shattered the truck’s windows, hilariously.

The Cybertruck is striking, no question. It doesn’t look like other trucks on the road, which is fantastic. But I don’t think it’s actually good design, aesthetically or practically, as a usable truck.

It is futuristic-looking, I suppose, but in the way that hastily-built prop vehicles built on air-cooled Volkswagen pans for sci-fi movies look futuristic.

I’m guessing there’s properties of the 0.12-inch stainless steel this thing is built out of that prevent complex stampings with curves or any sort from being used, and that’s why this thing looks like it’s a low-polygon model from a mid-1990s video game.

The lack of curves anywhere, even the angular wheel arches, feels less like a deliberate design decision and more like a severe constraint that weighed heavily on the designer. It seems like the sort of thing that would be built in a country without the means to stamp complex shapes from steel, like the Citroën FAF or the Volkswagen Hormiga.

These simple, crude, but highly usable vehicles managed to have a certain simple charm about them though. A charm that the Cybertruck lacks, and I think that’s because vehicles like the Hormiga were designed with utility and a sense of humility in mind, while the allegedly and needlessly bulletproof Cybertruck is designed around what feels like a very peculiar and specific sort of insecurity and arrogance. But there may be other reasons for the look at play.

Also, earlier utility vehicles with simple, flat panels that required no complex pressings almost always had something in common to make those flat panels stronger: corrugations.

Look at a Citroën HY Van, for example. It’s effectively covered in ribs to give thin metal strength. The Cybertruck has no corrugations at all but is made of entirely flat panels. Flat, thin steel panels with no corrugations are weak, unless the metal is thick and, as a result, heavy.

Elon said the stainless steel body panels on the truck are 3 millimetres thick—that’s 0.12 inches thick. Conventional relatively modern automotive sheet metal is usually no thicker than 20 gauge, which is 0.812 millimetres or 0.032 inches thick. That’s around a third the thickness of the Cybertruck steel.

The question is why. Why would you use thicker, heavier metal if you didn’t have to? There’s a lot of disadvantages to a really heavy car. The only thing I can think of is that the ease of manufacturing, coupled with stainless steel’s lack of need for paint, was the big motivators here.

I wonder if Tesla’s past difficulties with manufacturing of more conventionally-designed cars with complex curves like the Model S or Model 3 have made them decide they just wanted something really cheap and easy to build—hence the crude look of thick, flat panels joined together, looking like a spaceship from a PS1 game.

Cheap and easy to build is not a bad thing at all—but there’s a huge cost here, mostly at the expense of weight and materials used. The end result also isn’t a very cheap, entry-level vehicle, which means that any savings in manufacturing aren’t about making a more affordable truck, it’s for the good of the company.

That’s understandable, but also worth mentioning.

It looks like a kit car. It feels brutish and rushed, awkward and cumbersome, and, really, not even all that original, as there have been kit cars that used these same fundamental designs as far back as the 1970s:

That’s an UrbaCar, a car that was featured in a 1975 Mechanix Illustrated magazine. It’s remarkably like a scaled-down Cybertruck in design.

There’s an even more remarkably similar predecessor, though. Look at this:

That picture on top there is from a 1978 issue of Penthouse, and I didn’t find it in a soggy pile by a mattress in the woods, it was sent to me by legendary automotive kit car designer Curtis Brubaker, who made that design over 40 years ago.

Brubaker’s 1978 design was actually a can that converted into a truck, in the same way Tesla’s truck can have a sliding cover over the bed, and Brubaker’s design also included the slide-out ramp.

I think Brubaker’s design handled the roofline and wheelarches with more grace, but, fundamentally, it’s the same design.

It would be one thing if the design provided a great deal of utility, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case. We’ve seen curve-less, crude-adjacent electric truck designs before, from companies like Bollinger, but they at least provide some sort of practical justification; in Bollinger’s case, there’s a pass-through to allow for carrying really long things:

The Bollinger design uses almost no curves, yet somehow manages to feel more refined than the Cybertruck, and appears to be a lot more practical.

Sure, the Cybertruck has a small front trunk, which is useful, and some storage, I’m told, in the side buttresses, but overall I think Bollinger’s full front bed offers a lot more flexibility.

Of course, it costs more, doesn’t perform as well as the Tesla one (allegedly) will, and isn’t bulletproof, but I’m not so sure I really think a bulletproof truck is that important. And, if it is to you, maybe you should consider other things about your life situation before even considering truck ownership.

The fundamental design of the Cybertruck looks like it would make loading things from the sides quite awkward. I think I see some tie-downs inside the bed in the corners, though they don’t appear all that accessible, being stamped out of the steel sides.

It does appear that there are small auxiliary taillights in the rear bedsides, so you can drive with the tailgate (which has the long taillight strip) down.

The lack of wheel wells in the bed is nice, like a stepside truck, though I think in the hot summer sun that bed could be both hot and blinding. Maybe they’ll have some kind of bedliner option?

This may sound a little silly, but there are a lot of sharp corners on that thing, like the sides by the tailgate, and as anyone who has loaded awkward, bulky things into a truck can tell you, the idea of taking one of those pointy bits to the small of your back hardly seems like a remote possibility.

I like the Honda Ridgeline-like under-bed trunk area, as well as the front trunk, though the steeply-raked A-pillar design seems like it limits the frunk volume and makes interior headroom needlessly cramped. The visibility I’m not confident about either, with that massive driver’s eyes to windshield distance the slit-like rear window, and those massive rear buttresses.

There’s also no rearview mirrors, though I suspect that would have to change before production.

The tailgate appears to be un-dampened, and the ramp is a nice touch, though it’s hardly the first integrated-ramp pickup truck, and modern pickup trucks do have some pretty novel tailgate designs.

While I’m hardly a fan of modern pickup truck design, I can’t say that I think the Tesla Cybertruck is solving any design problems. It looks crude, rushed, and rudimentary, and I can’t see any way that the design actually improves anything about the actual operation and use of a truck. Really, it seems like it would be an awkward truck to actually live with and use.

Impressive specs, sure, but I’d trade real utility in a truck any day over being able to beat a Porsche 911 at a stoplight.

I’ll try and hold truly final judgment until I see one in person, but this initial look at the Cybertruck gives me the impression that this is a truck designed, like so many others, to project an image of mindless, needless intimidation, as exemplified by the demonstrations of it taking bullets and being whacked with hammers.

Screenshot: Total Recall, TriStar 1990

Just because the Cybertruck looks a bit like some of the cars in Total Recall doesn’t mean it actually is futuristic. This is a vehicle designed clearly for our unsettled, confused, and somewhat desperate present, but I’m not going to quit believing that we still deserve better, more usable trucks. Electric ones, especially.