The leader in automotive innovation news

Tesla just wanted a weird truck, Elon Musk says

6 min read

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the company conducted “zero” consumer research when designing its upcoming Cybertruck.

He says he doesn’t pay attention to competitors or know anything about other electric vehicles on the market.

And criticism that the Autopilot name is misleading for Tesla’s driver-assist system, which has been linked to a number of accidents? “Idiotic.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Automotive News Publisher Jason Stein last week, the 49-year-old Musk appeared unbothered by the product-related headaches that often vex his competitors or the billions of dollars that can hinge on his declarations. At one point he made a “stream-of-consciousness guess” that Tesla will start construction on a third U.S. assembly plant in four or five years, and later he suggested the company might build a minivan before largely dismissing the idea in the next sentence.

To Musk’s credit, Tesla continues to pace the industry in EV sales; it pioneered a digital retail model that’s becoming increasingly popular amid the coronavirus pandemic; and it has strung together four consecutive quarterly profits, albeit largely through the sale of regulatory credits to those competitors he says he doesn’t watch very closely. Despite numerous manufacturing challenges — and more than a few unforced Twitter faux pas — Tesla has soared in value, its market cap doubling after Musk publicly called its stock price too high.

“I must be doing something right, as far as my managing style’s concerned,” Musk said. “Tesla’s worth twice as much as the rest of the U.S. auto industry combined.”

He said he hopes to continue roiling the industry by launching the Cybertruck pickup next year. Although Tesla is entering a high-stakes segment with fiercely loyal customers, Musk admitted the truck was not guided by any of the focus groups or outreach to would-be buyers that Ford, Chevrolet and Ram have relied on over the decades to hone their designs.

“Customer research?” he said, before bursting into laughter. “We just made a car we thought was awesome and looks super weird. I just wanted to make a futuristic battle tank — something that looks like it could come out of Blade Runner or Aliens or something like that but was also highly functional.”

The Cybertruck looks unlike anything available on the market. It has a sharp-edged, stainless-steel exterior and glass that’s billed as bulletproof, though two windows unexpectedly shattered when struck by a metal ball during an impromptu durability demo at the unveiling last fall.

Musk said Tesla purposely made the truck as different as possible and that he doesn’t feel any pressure for it to succeed.

“It can be a better sports car than a Porsche 911, a better truck than an F-150, and it’s armored and looks sort of kick-ass from the future. That was the goal, recognizing this could be a complete failure,” he said. “But I wasn’t super worried about that because if it turns out nobody wants to buy a weird-looking truck, we’ll build a normal truck, no problem. There’s lots of normal trucks out there that look pretty much the same; you can hardly tell the difference. And sure, we could just do some copycat truck; that’s easy. So that’s our fallback strategy.”

Musk has repeatedly taken jabs at Ford’s industry-leading F-Series pickups, at one point posting a video of the Cybertruck overpowering an F-150 in a tug-of-war stunt.

But the Cybertruck is expected to be classified as a medium-duty pickup, putting it more on par with Ford’s Super Duty or Chevrolet’s Silverado HD. Musk told Automotive News the Cybertruck would not be sold globally.

“We’re really, fundamentally making this truck as a North American ass-kicker, basically,” he said. “The goal is to kick the most amount of ass possible with this truck. We want it to be something you could use to tow a boat, a horse trailer, pull tree stumps out of the ground, go off-roading and you don’t have to worry about scratching the paint because there is no paint. You could just be smashing boulders and be fine.”

Musk said at least 200,000 customers have put down refundable $100 deposits for the Cybertruck since the company started taking them in November. But despite the competitive barbs thrown at Ford, he’s not necessarily seeking to steal market share from the established players by poaching their pickup customers.

“We’re not really trying to target anyone,” he said. “If they like the Cybertruck, cool. If they don’t, yeah. We’re not trying to play some marketing game. We’re just trying to create products that people will love.”

Still, he said the Cybertruck would be ideal on construction sites or for off-roading adventures. It will come with an on-board generator, a built-in air compressor and bulletproof body panels.

“So it’s probably helpful in the apocalypse,” he said. “Things are seeming more apocalyptic these days. Let me tell you, the truck you want in the apocalypse is the Cybertruck.”

Musk’s tone darkened when asked about whether Tesla should continue to use the name Autopilot for its driver-assist technology amid complaints that it makes people think its cars are fully autonomous. A German court said in July that Tesla misled customers and banned the company from advertising Autopilot.

A number of drivers have died after their Teslas struck objects and other vehicles, including firetrucks and semitrailers, with Autopilot engaged. YouTube videos of drivers sleeping, reading or climbing into the back seat after activating the system rack up tens of thousands of views.

Musk bristled at the idea that the name needs clarification.

“Absolutely not; that’s ridiculous,” he said. “The people who misuse Autopilot, it’s not because they’re new to it and don’t understand it. The people who first use Autopilot are extremely paranoid about it. It’s not like, ‘If you just introduced a different name, I would have really treated it differently.’ If something goes wrong with Autopilot, it’s because someone is misusing it and using it directly contrary to how we’ve said it should be used.”

Musk said the name is based on the airplane technology that aids, but does not replace, pilots. Musk has said Tesla could have “full self-driving” technology available by the end of the year, but he notes that it still instructs customers to fully pay attention while Autopilot is engaged.

“It’s not like some newbie who just got the car and, based on the name, thought they’d instantly trust the car to drive itself,” he said. “That’s the idiotic premise of being upset with the Autopilot name. Idiotic.”

Tesla faces increased competition each year from established automakers as well as startups attempting to capture some of its marketing magic.

But EVs remain a fraction of the overall U.S. industry, with just 1.4 percent market share in the first half of the year, and analysts continue to question consumer demand.

Musk said he’s surprised at how slow the industry has been to roll out desirable EVs and seemed stumped as to why rival vehicles are not selling in larger numbers.

“I don’t really pay much attention to this stuff,” he said. “I’m not really looking at competitors. I’m just looking at, what are we doing to make our products better and engage in self-improvement?”

One would-be competitor that has caught his attention, however, is Rivian Automotive Inc. In July, Tesla filed a lawsuit accusing Rivian of an “alarming pattern” of poaching its employees and stealing trade secrets.

“They’ve taken a bunch of Tesla intellectual property on thumb drives and on computers and stuff,” Musk said. “It’s not cool to steal our IP and for people to violate their confidentiality agreements. They’re doing bad things, so we sued them.”

Musk, who has slept overnight at his desk and walked the factory floor to help overcome manufacturing challenges, said he thinks about succession atop Tesla but plans to continue running the automaker as long as he is able.

Aside from introducing the Cybertruck, Semi and new Roadster in the coming years, Musk said he’s considering adding a compact vehicle or a van. Longer term, he eventually would like Tesla to produce 20 million new vehicles a year. Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, built 10.8 million last year.

“We want to try and make a real dent in sustainable transport and sustainable energy storage,” he said. “If we could replace 1 percent of the global fleet per year, I could say, ‘OK, we’re moving the needle on sustainable transport.’ ”

What do you think?

Copyright © All rights reserved.

MotorLinks 2020