Something Changed At Tesla

The Tesla Model X went into production in 2015, and the future of 2015 looked bright. We’d all drive around in pods shaped vaguely like eggs, with gullwing doors that are smart enough not to hit other cars. The Tesla Cybertruck prototype debuted in 2019, and in the future of 2019, we all drive hulking, angular, Elysium monstrosities with indestructible doors and bulletproof glass. And all it’s making me feel is sadness.

I want to like the Cybertruck, from a design perspective. I really do.

We constantly lament how cars nowadays all look the same, and any slight deviation from the dreary norm only manifests as an extreme ugliness that no child should have to see.

And then the Cybertruck came along, and it truly looked like nothing else. It didn’t just look “different,” it looked like it was from another planet. It took the sort of design risk that should be lauded, should be held up as a paragon of thinking about things differently. People tried to fit it into their existing automotive schemas, noting that it had the angles and lines reminiscent of a Lamborghini Countach, or something from Giorgetto Giugiaro. That it looked like a particularly shiny boulder, or the brutalist/modernist house from Parasite.

But, to me at least, it doesn’t look like any of those things. It doesn’t look like a thing at all, but rather an idea of where society is headed.

Tesla’s design and engineering brief has always appeared to be about a utopian dream from science fiction. Cars that drive themselves! Doors that open and shut on their own! Electro-mechanical snakes! Sure, just like in science fiction there was a big likelihood that none of it would ever come true, but the important thing to many just seemed to be that the dream was there, when every other automaker was dreaming about longer lease terms and maybe some Bluetooth.

Tesla’s dream was bright and sunny, a place where everyone had and did nice things, and the crushing weight of what we, as a society, have built since the industrial revolution would not come to bear down upon us.

The Tesla Model X embodied that. We all call it an “SUV,” but it’s not an SUV, not really. It’s sort of round and bulbous, and its ride height is really dependent on whatever level you set the air suspension at. It can seat seven in a high-capacity configuration, because in the future we could all afford to have kids, or it could seat fewer than that because in the future we could all freely choose whether or not we wanted to reproduce. The driver’s door can open for you when you’ve got the key-dongle thing in your pocket, and close again automatically when you tap your foot on the brake. It has Autopilot, which gave us the faintest glimmer of what it would be like if we never had to actually trudge through traffic again.

It had those crazy falcon wing doors, because what’s even the point of the future if we don’t have weird doors?

But rare is the science fiction that breaks out of the utopia/dystopia mould. There are infinite utopias, and infinite dystopias. And there are many that start off as one, and end like the other. And the Model X may have been full of foreshadowing.

Humanity abused Autopilot, and humans started to die. Countries with vast reserves of lithium, used in the car’s batteries, have started to experience coups, much like oil-rich nations before them. This wonderful, splendid future-car came equipped with bio-weapon defence mode, which was funny, because when would we need that, right guys?

Even the doors began to break.

So if the promise of the Model X was the future we’ve always wanted, and if the Model X as we have it is reflective of our present, I worry for what the Cybertruck foretells may be coming in our reality.

Yes, it’s a pickup that runs on electricity, because we are running out of oil, the precious and finite resource that is utterly destroying our planet. But it’s one that seems designed around the notion that there are threats around every corner. It looks aggressive, so as to hopefully intimidate any who get too close. The doors are promised to stop bullets. The windows, while not quite able to stop a sledgehammer, are promised to stop projectiles. It doesn’t appear to have any side-view mirrors, possibly because what’s behind you can only hurt you. The tires look like they can demolish a small, particularly restive village, if need be.

It’s a vehicle to ensconce you in a protective cocoon, safe from any dangers of the world.

But that all begs a question, doesn’t it.

Why do you need to be safe from the world? Whose bullets is it supposed to be protecting you from?

Put it another way, the future as Tesla saw it in 2015 looked hopeful. In four long years that went to shit. I can’t say Elon sketched out the Cybertruck on a White House napkin in the short time he served as part of Trump’s transition committee, but I don’t like it and I don’t like what it represents. Our highways shouldn’t be full of looming Cybertrucks, mobile fortresses rolling down I-40, or silently rolling through San Francisco, shatterproof glass ready for someone to try to smash a window, like they did the Google Bus a year before the X hit the streets.

Cars are a reflection of ourselves, whether we choose to festoon them in explicit messages or not. They can show what we hope for, what we aspire to, not just how large or how modest our bank accounts are. They are how we present ourselves to our fellow human. A Bugeye Sprite just wants to love you. An angry Jeep does not. A Pontiac Aztek is, well, a Pontiac Aztek. Everyone’s still trying to figure that one out.

I worry for what the Tesla Cybertruck says about us. I worry what it says about where we think our future is headed.

I want to love it. But I deeply, desperately hope that it’s entirely wrong.

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