More than three years after Elon Musk stunned the auto industry with an electric pickup truck that looked more like a stealth fighter than a way to haul two-by-fours and drywall, Tesla said last month that it would begin building the vehicle by the end of 2023.
The announcement has helped fuel a recovery in Tesla’s share price, but also revived a debate about whether the often-delayed pickup, called the Cybertruck, is a work of genius or evidence of Mr. Musk’s hubris.
It would be very unlike Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, to build a pickup that looked anything like the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado or Ram 1500 pickup — three of the best-selling vehicles in the United States.
With its angular stainless steel body, the Cybertruck is an attempt to redefine the pickup in the same way that Tesla upended the conventional wisdom of the auto industry by proving that battery-powered vehicles could be practical and profitable.
Tesla advertises that a top-of-the-line version of the truck will be able to tow 14,000 pounds and accelerate faster than a Porsche 911. The Cybertruck’s doors will open automatically when the driver approaches.
The truck is important because it will be Tesla’s first new passenger vehicle in three years and could help breathe life into a model lineup that some buyers consider dated. Established carmakers like Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have released several new electric models since the Model Y, Tesla’s most recent car, went on sale in early 2020.
But the Cybertruck is so behind schedule that some auto experts wonder if it has become another example of Mr. Musk’s penchant for pushing technological boundaries to the brink of disaster. In 2018, his determination to build a highly automated assembly line for the Model 3 sedan led to “production hell” and nearly killed the company before he opted for more standard manufacturing practices.
This time it’s the use of stainless steel for the Cybertruck’s body that has industry experts shaking their heads.
Stainless steel resists corrosion and doesn’t need to be painted, eliminating a cost and the need for environmentally toxic chemical coatings. But it is also expensive and difficult to shape and weld. Stainless steel is typically heavier than the steel used in most other cars, reducing driving range.
There is a reason that only one car company has ever tried to mass-produce a car with a stainless steel body. That was DeLorean, which went bankrupt after building fewer than 10,000 cars, which are best known for their starring role as a time machine in the “Back to the Future” films.
The Rise of Electric Vehicles
“Musk is an example of how the fetishization of tech start-ups and their leaders can eventually lead those leaders to making bad decisions,” Patrick McQuown, executive director of entrepreneurship at Towson University in Maryland, said in an email. “To me, the insistence on stainless steel is a manifestation of his belief that he has some unique understanding of the market, and that the market will buy whatever he offers because it comes from the mind of Elon Musk.”
Stainless steel costs more than the steel used in most automobiles because it contains chromium and often other ingredients, like nickel and molybdenum, that are in high demand. Stainless steel’s tendency to spring back to its original shape means it cannot be stamped into fenders and other parts as easily as the more pliable steel used by most automakers. It also requires special welding techniques.
These challenges probably help explain why Tesla is two years behind schedule in manufacturing the Cybertruck, which the company plans to produce at its factory in Austin, Texas.
“Tesla thinks they can solve any problem and don’t have to learn from anyone else,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “and then they get stuck in a corner.”
Tesla said in an earnings report last month that it would begin producing the Cybertruck before the end of this year. But Mr. Musk qualified that statement during a conference call with analysts and investors, saying the company wouldn’t begin making the vehicle in large numbers until 2024. When Tesla unveiled the Cybertruck, it said the vehicle would go on sale in 2021.
The vehicle “will not be a significant contributor to the bottom line” in 2023, Mr. Musk said, “but it will be next year.”
Tesla’s delays allowed traditional carmakers to beat it to market with electric pickups, and leave Tesla with nothing to offer the many Americans who prefer pickup trucks to cars or sport utility vehicles.
Buyers are clamoring for electric trucks. Ford stopped taking reservations for its F-150 Lightning, a battery-powered version of the best-selling vehicle, because it can’t make the vehicles fast enough. Rivian, a newer electric vehicle company, is also struggling to produce enough of its pickup, the R1T, to meet demand.
G.M.’s GMC division is selling a Hummer pickup truck, but in relatively small numbers. and Chevrolet is expected to begin delivering an electric Silverado this year. Ram has said it will release a battery-powered 1500 truck next year.
“The first-mover advantage that Tesla could have leveraged has completely gone away,” Mr. Rajkumar said. “It’s a massive opportunity lost.”
Tesla has shared virtually no details about how it will overcome the challenges of working with stainless steel, which include safety. The steel used in most cars is designed to crumple in a crash, absorbing energy and protecting passengers. Stainless steel does not crumple as easily, exposing passengers to more of the force from impact.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
There are indications that the truck will use a stainless steel formula that is the same as or similar to that used by SpaceX, the rocket company headed by Mr. Musk. Charles Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX, holds the same title at Tesla.
Mr. Kuehmann was a co-founder of QuesTek, a materials design firm, and worked on a design team at Apple. His reputation as a pioneer in the use of new materials gives some engineering experts confidence that Tesla has developed an alloy that will overcome the challenges of stainless steel.
Mr. Kuehmann did not respond to a request for comment.
The Cybertruck body has none of the curves typical of most vehicles, instead consisting of flat steel panels that experts say are probably cut with lasers and then welded together, eliminating the need for powerful stamping machines.
“Broadly the concept could make sense,” said Kip Findley, a professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has done research on advanced steel for vehicles. “This is pushing steel development forward and making people think about steel in a different way, which is good.”
“But there are some open questions,” Mr. Findley added. These include how owners will repair damage to the Cybertruck’s body, which Tesla refers to as an “exoskeleton.” Stainless steel dents less easily than conventional auto-body steel, but once damaged it is more difficult to pound back into shape.
As the only company mass-producing vehicle bodies from stainless steel, Tesla will not be able to take advantage of the economies of scale that other automakers share. That could make the truck more expensive to produce.
When Tesla introduced the Cybertruck, it said the starting price would be just under $40,000. But the final price is widely expected to be much higher.
Tesla is taking reservations, which cost $100, for the Cybertruck without naming a price for the vehicle. Tesla has not said how many reservations it has amassed.
If nothing else, the Cybertruck will stand out in a crowded field.
Stainless steel car bodies are “certainly possible,” said Wei Xiong, an associate professor of metallurgy and materials design at the University of Pittsburgh, noting that computer-aided design allows researchers to develop high-performance materials much faster than a few years ago. “I can understand why he wants to go there.”
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