Whatever else one wants to say about Tesla (TSLA) , Elon Musk's company has generally done a good job of designing, branding and marketing its electric sedans and crossovers in ways that appeal to a mass market of potential customers.
That in turn makes the unveiling of Tesla's Cybertruck -- honestly, it simply feels weird typing that -- baffling and surreal for reasons that have nothing to do with social media snark or on-stage mishaps.
Let's just start with the name. There's a reason why (if not given a few letters and numbers, as Ford's (F) pickups often receive) pickups tend to be given names such as Ridgeline, Tundra, RAM or Silverado. Odds are good that many current pickup owners would feel squeamish telling their friends and co-workers that they drive something called a Cybertruck.
Then there's the truck's actual design -- thus far, I've seen it compared to a DeLorean, a military vehicle, the Aston Martin Bulldog and the Batmobile, but not to any pickup currently on the market. The sharp angles, the stainless steel body (only available in one color, grey), the rectangular "steering wheel" and the presence of an angled, lockable, storage "vault" in the back, as opposed to a traditional flatbed, all bring to mind a vehicle from a sci-fi movie rather than something competing against the Ford F-150 or Toyota (TM) Tacoma for the wallets of pickup truck buyers.
As others have noted, there have been many novel or startling product designs over the years that eventually won consumers over (Apple's (AAPL) AirPods might be a good recent example). But Tesla is pushing the envelope here in a pretty extreme way, and doing so while targeting a demographic that to date hasn't done much to signal that it's open to radically new car designs.
Also, as Engadget's Roberto Baldwin pointed out after taking a ride in a Cybertruck, the truck's design has utilitarian shortcomings as well: It's harder to throw something into the storage vault from its sides than it would be to throw something into a flatbed. In addition, though it's likely that this will be addressed before the truck enters production, the prototype that was shown off had no side mirrors.
It's worth remembering here that -- occasional flourishes such as the Model X's gullwing doors aside -- Tesla has avoided seriously rocking the boat when it comes to its sedan and crossover designs. Musk & Co. have tried hard to convey to consumers that, though powered by electric motors rather than internal-combustion engines, their cars still have a lot in common with other vehicles on the road, and in many respects can be used in a similar way.
Admittedly, on a technical level, the Cybertruck, which is meant to enter production in late 2021, does look like another impressive feat of Tesla engineering. Depending on the model, the truck can tow between 7,500 and 14,000 pounds, go from 0-60 in between 6.5 and 2.9 (!) seconds and (before counting a load's impact on range) go 250 to 500 miles between charges. Buyers will also get a pretty spacious interior, Autopilot and a 17-inch touchscreen console.
And while the base model's $39,900 starting price -- never mind the $69,900 price for the high-end, tri-motor model -- makes it costlier than that of many high-volume pickups currently available, it could be a little while before an auto incumbent launches an electric pickup with comparable specs this cheaply.
Between them, Tesla's engineering work and its ability to source batteries at cost via its Gigafactory continue yielding a cost advantage. But all of this only means so much if Tesla's branding and design choices turn off large chunks of its addressable market.
In spite of everything, the Cybertruck's specs and unique feature set could be enough to carve out a niche in a sizable pickup market. Nonetheless, one has to think that Ford, GM and Toyota execs breathed sighs of relief after getting their first look at the truck -- and perhaps also let out a few laughs.