On Thursday night, Elon Musk will appear onstage at the Tesla Design Center in Los Angeles to reveal the product he’s most excited about: Tesla’s first electric pickup truck. And while the CEO has teased the truck on and off for six years, with increased hype at every turn, it’s still not super clear what’s in store. Unlike, say, the Model Y reveal earlier this year, Musk has played this one somewhat close to the chest.
Yes, Musk has said he drew inspiration from Blade Runner in designing the truck. It’s also called (or at least codenamed) “Cybertruck,” with an appropriately science-fiction-style, vowel-dropped logo to boot. We have a rough idea of some specs that will be offered. And we know he wants to combine Porsche-level performance with utility that makes a Ford F-150 look like a Tonka truck. As for what it looks like, though, everyone is still in the dark. Like, literally — Tesla has only released a few really murky teaser images for the truck.
Pickup trucks are currently the fastest-growing segment in the US, and they tend to sell for sky-high prices. Even with direct competition from established players (like Ford’s forthcoming electric F-150) and newcomers (like Rivian), there is a ton of money to be made in pickup trucks. Moving into the market seems like a no-brainer for Tesla, especially because the company remains in search of sustainable profitability.
Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to Tesla. Musk said in 2018 that he didn’t care if people were turned off by the truck’s futuristic design, which is an interesting way to market a vehicle. He quickly backtracked, however, and said he would eventually like to get gas and diesel trucks off the road. And in that same interview, Musk also said Tesla would even consider making a more conventional pickup truck in the future in order to meet a wider customer base.
In other words, Musk has proposed so many different ideas for the Tesla pickup truck over the years that Thursday evening will, at the very least, provide some highly desired clarity. And despite Tesla’s track record of missed deadlines and early production problems, the company’s lead in electric vehicle technology has ensured that whatever Musk reveals is destined to be the thing people benchmark against as they evaluate the first electric pickup trucks on the market.
One thing Musk has given a ballpark for is the Cybertruck’s starting price. In June 2019, the Tesla CEO said the truck would start at “less than $50,000,” putting it between the starting price of the Model 3 (currently $39,400) and the Model S (currently $79,990) sedans. It’s also just about the same price as the long-range version of the Model Y crossover SUV ($48,000) that will ship in late 2020, though Tesla ultimately plans to sell a cheaper, shorter-range model for around $39,000.
“It’s got to be, like, $49,000 starting price max. Ideally less,” Musk said of the truck earlier this year. “It just can’t be unaffordable. It’s got to be something that’s affordable.”
Musk has also said the base model will be equipped with a dual-motor setup (meaning all-wheel drive will come standard) and a dynamic suspension that automatically adjusts based on how much weight the truck is carrying. He’s also claimed there will be a version of the truck that gets 400 to 500 miles of range, meaning the more affordable base model may wind up with closer to 300 miles.
That said, Tesla has been able to squeeze increasing amounts of range from the battery packs it already ships, and it also went out and acquired two battery companies this year. It’s not unthinkable that the base pickup truck could offer more than 300 miles by the time it ships.
One thing to look for on Thursday is whether Tesla will make versions of the truck with bigger cabs or wildly different trim levels.
Typically, Tesla’s cars get better performance and range as they get more expensive. But the priciest models aren’t bigger or really materially different from the cheaper versions. This is decidedly not the case with most pickup trucks, though, which come in a wide range of sizes and are deeply customizable.
The resulting decision tree is part of what makes buyers wind up spending so much more on pickup trucks, according to Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights for Edmunds. Tesla doesn’t need to copy that playbook to sell trucks, Caldwell says, but it would help sway customers who may otherwise buy an F-150.
“Even more recreational truck buyers are going to want to use this as their daily driver, so they’re going to want all the amenities. They’re going to expect the clean cool design from Tesla, but want the things that they’d get in another truck,” Caldwell says. “People are willing to spend on this segment to haul their toys, to support a life style. It’s a very expensive segment, which is where Tesla’s sweet spot is.”
Musk has tweeted that the truck will have lockers, plus 240V outlets for using “high power tools in field all day” with “[n]o generator needed. We can also expect to see Autopilot functionality, media streaming from Spotify and Netflix, and other similar software features found on the company’s current cars. Whether Tesla will offer an extended cab version, or other more typical pickup truck accoutrements, is something to watch for on Thursday.
The most eye-popping number Musk has thrown out about the Cybertruck, though, was the suggestion it will have a 300,000-pound towing capacity. That would represent an order of magnitude of improvement over the towing capacity of most pickup trucks on the market.
Even Tesla’s slowest vehicles are still pretty fast. But mixing in anything remotely resembling that kind of capability could make the Cybertruck something that even the most loyal truck buyers stop to consider.
Again, we’re truly in the dark here, but Musk has said the Cybertruck will be “a really futuristic-like cyberpunk, Blade Runner pickup truck.” He’s called the design “heart-stopping,” and said the project is his “personal favorite” out of all the ones Tesla is working on.
“I’d expect it to be curvier and sleeker than what we see from Detroit, which is that sort of brash, in your face, big-grille design,” says Tyson Jominy, the vice president of data and analytics consulting at JD Power.
“We know it’s definitely not going to look like a Silverado,” says Caldwell.
Musk has suggested that the truck’s design may be too far-out for mainstream buyers, but Caldwell suggests the boom in truck sales may have carved out space for a company like Tesla to try something new. She also points out how players like Ford have successfully introduced new ideas into the market that once seemed like non-starters in their own right, like an all aluminum body or the smaller EcoBoost engine.
“I think Tesla’s in kind of a unique position in which they can almost become the anti-pickup-truck pickup truck, because they’re not necessarily having to stick with the same formula people have used in the past,” she says. “I think pickup truck buyers are probably more flexible than we give them credit for.”
Tesla typically offers rides in the prototype vehicles it debuts at these events. And according to the invites that were sent out, there is supposed to be an outdoor portion of the event, so it’s possible attendees will get that chance.
But Musk has touted the Tesla pickup’s supposed performance capabilities so much over the last few years that it’s hard to imagine he won’t take the chance to put on some kind of demonstration.
If that’s the case, it makes sense that he’d focus on the towing capacity. And if Musk really wants to show how the Cybertruck outperforms an F-150, he’ll hook the thing up to something truly massive and drag it down the stretch of road typically used for test rides in front of SpaceX headquarters. Maybe he’ll have the truck tow a Tesla Semi with a trailer full of F-150s. Or maybe he’ll strap a Falcon 9 rocket to an oversized flatbed and drag it a few hundred feet.
Either way, Thursday night is his first chance to back up all his F-150 smack talk with some action. And for its part, Ford has already showed its forthcoming electric F-150 towing a one-million-pound train.
Tesla has a wide base of fans, customers, and people who fall into both categories. They tend to be an imaginative, collaborative bunch. And as we inch closer to the Cybertruck reveal, they’ve gone absolutely buck wild trying to guess at what it looks like.
Just do a Google image search for “Tesla pickup truck” before Thursday night’s event and you’ll see what I mean. There has been no end to them.
This was bound to happen, especially since it’s the first truly new design we’ve seen from Tesla in two years. In some ways, it’s been a nice reminder of how much time and effort goes into real automotive design, because most of these look like half-finished, half-botched Photoshop attempts.
This is Elon Musk we’re talking about. The man who published a tweet that ultimately cost himself $40 million. The guy who started a tunnel-digging company while sitting in traffic. The general rule of thumb with him is there’s always a chance things go way off script when he’s speaking in or to the public.
He could tease yet another new Tesla product. Or he could make a grand proclamation about Tesla Cybertrucks roving the Martian surface in four years. More likely, he’ll tout some theoretically possible feature that sounds oh-so obvious to fans and nearly impossible to skeptics.
Musk is likely to focus some of Thursday’s event on how Autopilot will change the pickup truck experience. The question is how much further does he push it. The truck likely won’t go into production until at least 2021, but Musk has already claimed Tesla will have 1 million robotaxis on public roads in 2020. If he believes that, then what does he think is possible with a fully autonomous truck, regardless of whether that’s even possible in this time frame?
We don’t know where, or really when, the pickup truck will be built. We don’t know how many of them Tesla wants to build. We don’t know what the “cyber” in “Cybertruck” means (as if words have meaning anymore). We also don’t know how another new vehicle is going to stress Tesla’s production capacity and customer service, both of which are stretched quite thin at the moment. Most of all, we have no idea how customers will respond to a Tesla pickup truck, especially if its design is really as out there as Musk has said.
But despite its problems, the company has proven an ability to convert buzz into buyers, especially with the Model 3. The Cybertruck is almost a sure bet to become the latest hot commodity from Tesla, regardless of what it looks like, or who’s ponying up the money. And its mere existence is likely to make automakers rethink how they view pickup trucks, even if it’s just a little bit.
“This is sort of game on,” Jominy says. “Tesla’s essentially attacking the fortress of Detroit right at the front gate.”