Elon Musk's Cybertruck is built for a dystopian future. But will it work in our current reality?

Larger and more powerful vehicles are an increasing safety hazard, and the Cybertruck doesn’t seem to be reflecting today's challenges.
Image: The Cybertruck, Tesla's first electric pickup truck.
The Cybertruck, Tesla's first electric pickup truck, wouldn't look out of place in "Blade Runner."Tesla / via Reuters
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By Paris Marx

Elon Musk’s latest pet project, the Cybertruck, was unveiled to the masses on Nov. 21. As Musk originally did with the Tesla Roadster, he’s now trying to entice a new segment of drivers to ditch internal combustion engines for battery-powered alternatives. However, the Cybertruck’s polarizing design may blunt its appeal, while concerns about its impact on other road users raises larger questions about whether an armored truck is really the green future we should be striving toward.

The Cybertruck’s polarizing design may blunt its appeal, while concerns about its impact on other road users raises larger questions.

The Cybertruck announcement set an ominous tone for the project. The demo of the truck’s bulletproof glass ended with two broken windows and the design was roundly mocked on Twitter. However, Musk claims Tesla has already received more than 250,000 orders (though the accuracy of the number may be questionable).

But this is only the start of the Cybertruck’s potential problems.

The truck’s design seems inspired by 1980s science fiction films Musk watched as a teenager. It shares a lot aesthetically with the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” given the metal finish and angular designs of both vehicles, but in function the vehicles from “Blade Runner” make for a more direct comparison. The original 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott played an influential role in defining the cyberpunk aesthetic — hence the name of the Cybertruck — and it’s no coincidence that Musk held the unveiling last month: "Blade Runner" was set in November 2019.

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However, the world of “Blade Runner” is much different than our own. It takes place in a version of Los Angeles suffering from heavy pollution and environmental degradation, and the central character is tasked with tracking down a gang of humanoid robots seeking to extend their manufactured four-year lifespans. The dark and gloomy atmosphere of the city, densely packed with inhabitants, is polluted and dangerous.

We do not live in that dystopian future. And whether or not Earth ever reaches that point, a vehicle designed with those future dangers in mind could actually endanger its surroundings in the present.

Musk took the time to (successfully) demonstrate how a sledgehammer was unable to dent the side panels of the Cybertruck and (unsuccessfully) show off its unbreakable glass. However, a vehicle designed to protect the driver from imagined external threats could be more hostile to the world around it — as existing trucks and SUVs have already proven to be — and possibly even for the driver.

A vehicle designed to protect the driver from imagined external threats could be more hostile to the world around it.

In 2018, 6,227 pedestrians died in the United States; since 2009, such deaths are up a total of 51.5 percent, with the boom in SUV sales identified as a leading cause. A groundbreaking joint investigation by The Detroit Free Press and USA Today found that the increase in deaths was directly attributable to the increase in SUV and trucks sales since 2009, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting that pedestrians are two to three times “more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car.”

And unlike in Europe, the United States does not consider pedestrian safety in its vehicle safety ratings. According to the same Free Press/USA Today investigation, danger to pedestrians comes from the higher and blunter front ends on trucks and SUVs, which are “more likely to put someone’s head or chest in line to be struck during the initial impact with a vehicle.” Power is also a factor since “the trend toward more powerful vehicles could contribute to higher speeds, which, in turn, could lead to more crashes and more severe injuries.”

Pedestrians around the world are suffering as well. A recent report by the Guardian reviewed the safety data on SUVs and found that they lulled drivers into a false sense of security. Despite the perception that they are safer for drivers — pedestrians be damned — research shows that people in SUVs are actually 11 percent more likely to die in a crash than those in regular cars. The height of the vehicles also makes them twice as likely to roll in crashes, resulting in 45 percent of deaths in SUVs and 41 percent in pickup trucks because of rollovers, compared to just 22 percent in cars.

There’s nothing in the Cybertruck’s current design to suggest it would be much better for either passengers or pedestrians. It has similar dimensions to a Ford F-150, which could cause a similar elevated risk of rollover. Musk is also notoriously obsessed with power — Tesla’s first vehicle was a high-end sports car — and the entrepreneur claims the Cybertruck can go “0-60 mph in as little as 2.9 seconds.” It also has a very blunt front end, and the solidity of its panels likely won’t provide any benefit to pedestrians if they’re struck.

In the days since the unveiling, a number of people familiar with vehicle design standards have commented that the current dystopian design of the Cybertruck will never make it to city streets.

In the days since the unveiling, a number of people familiar with vehicle design standards have commented that the current dystopian design of the Cybertruck will never make it to city streets. Raphael Zammit, head of the Transportation Design MFA at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, told Wired that the Cybertruck’s design “literally breaks every rule we tell to our students.” Its lack of side mirrors and single strip of lights along the front, instead of traditional headlights, means it probably would not be street legal in the United States. Engineering experts Wired spoke to were worried about the lack of a visible “crumple zone,” the structural element of the vehicle that absorbs the energy from a crash to reduce the risk of injury to passengers, as opposed to trying to limit damage to the vehicle itself.

Experts at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety told Autoblog that it’s too early to tell whether the Cybertruck’s design would be more dangerous to pedestrians or whether passengers would be at greater risk if the roof were crushed in a rollover.

Ultimately, an auto-dominated transportation system is neither safe nor sustainable, and buying a Cybertruck won’t change that. Indeed, Musk has long derided nonautomotive transportation alternatives. He criticized public transit as a “pain in the ass,” full of “a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer” and said electric scooters “lack dignity.”

Tens of thousands of people die on U.S. roads every year, and cars are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Larger and more powerful vehicles are making that worse, not better, and the Cybertruck doesn’t seem to be reflecting the challenges of our current reality. At least not right now.

For this reason, it’s good that the design of the Cybertruck will inevitably change to conform to vehicle design rules in the United States and safety rules in Europe. It's true that electric vehicles are not as dirty as those powered by gas and diesel, but a truly sustainable, safe future requires us to reduce driving, period.