The 1992 Hummer never made a lot of sense. Ripped from the battlefields of the Middle East, the modified military vehicle was sold to suburban stock traders and weekend warriors who considered a Chevy Suburban just too demure.
The 10-mile-per-gallon Hummer never invaded America. At its peak, the two most popular versions, the H2 and H3, sold 35,000 and 54,000 units respectively, according to investment bank RBC. GM finally sold the brand to a Chinese company in 2009 after sales tanked when oil prices spiked.
But watching Tesla CEO Elon Musk roll out the new Cybertruck on Nov. 21, it struck me that the company’s retro-futuristic new “Cybertruck” is the next generation’s Hummer. It’s an expensive fashion statement that appeals to a small, but fervent, slice of the population. I wasn’t the only one thinking along those exact lines. In a note to investors, Joseph Spak of RBC called Tesla’s new pickup “a Hummer for the green millennial generation..the ultimate virtue and vice signaling machine.”
Tesla’s fanbase isn’t the same as Hummer’s was. They prefer rockets to recoil, and batteries to diesel. But the psychology of the edge appeal is the same. Who will buy a $69,900 cyber-punk truck molded from cold-rolled steel able to surge from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, and still tow up to 14,000 pounds? Whoever will does not see themselves in the mainstream.
Tesla’s electric truck specs beggar belief. Armored glass and “ultra-hard 30X cold-rolled stainless steel” render it impervious to dents and dings (and I suppose bullets?). On stage last night, Tesla’s chief designer Franz von Holzhausen swung a hammer to demonstrate the steel’s hardiness, although a metal sphere hurled at a window managed to crack it: “Not bad—room for improvement,” Musk joked. It boasts a range between 250 to 500 miles per charge with “more performance than a sports car” with no direct carbon emissions. The base version will cost just $39,900 (cheaper than most Model 3s!) and production is slated for late 2022 (take all of Musk’s deadlines with a mountain of salt).
Not that this matters. After all, it’s a Tesla. Vehicles, at least in this class, are about identity. Most pickups, it turns out, are “cowboy costumes,” an expensive way to haul air and make a statement. Only 25% of truck owners ever drive off-road or tow something. The most important features truck buyers want in their pickup? “To look good while driving, to present a tough image, to have their car act as an extension of their personality, and to stand out in a crowd.”
The Cybertruck, if nothing else, makes a statement. Tesla only needs a small piece of the growing and enormously profitable truck market—accounting for 3 million units, or 18% of US sales—to ensure its factories are busy. There will be plenty of demand, predicted Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “If Tesla can produce a sufficient number of Cybertrucks, and if the early adopters are fully satisfied, the Cybertruck could cross into traditional truck markets, and that’s a massive segment if Tesla can tap into it,” Brauer said over email.
Is the cybertruck a joke? Has Musk trolled all of us for the “lulz?” Maybe. The renderings don’t show rear-view mirrors, side mirrors, seat belts, or other things cars are legally supposed to have. But the key for Tesla is to always be different. The company has lashed itself to its image as an insurgent. It rarely does things the way things have always been done (and the same goes for its buyers, they believe). Even if the price is a bit too high, or the door panels don’t quite fit, or promises don’t happen quite as promised. The day Tesla becomes “normal” is the day Tesla becomes just like everyone else. And then there’s no reason to buy one.
Correction: Tesla’s chief designer Franz von Holzhausen, not Musk, swung the sledgehammer on stage.