If the Tesla Cybertruck is the vehicle of the moment, so to speak, it’s very much Elon Musk’s particular moment. 

There are a few anecdotes from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Musk that speak volumes about how we got to where we are this week, witnessing the long-awaited production debut of arguably the most polarizing electric vehicle ever made. The first one dates back to early 2017, when Musk and the Tesla inner circle were mulling the idea of a pickup truck—a way to get into America’s most lucrative and important markets.

But Musk insisted on doing something different here; something wild, something that would rethink the stagnant pickup truck concept entirely. Musk even referenced the Lotus Esprit from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me that he so admires. They mulled building it out of aluminum, then titanium, until Musk insisted on stainless steel.

Gallery: Tesla Cybertruck

The decision would have far-ranging implications for the truck’s design, engineering and even repairs. But it happened because Musk insisted on something “bold,” something that would “surprise people,” the book says; something that would look like “the future.” He refused to “play it safe,” as Tesla did with the Model Y (to great financial success, it must be said.) This is a thread woven throughout Tesla’s history: Musk’s personal stamp on the design and engineering process. And more than any Falcon Doors or vent-free air-conditioning systems, the Cybertruck is the ultimate manifestation of that. As was the ultimatum to the team: “Don’t resist me.” 

Fast forward almost seven years later, and the radical truck Musk wanted is finally here. But is it what the world needs right now? Is it what Tesla needs right now? I have a very hard time believing that. 

Few things this year have defined the news cycle as much as the iron will of the world’s richest man. It has changed the trajectory of Tesla and the ways we consume information online, and even touched the war in Ukraine. Musk has gone from successful EV and space travel entrepreneur to becoming a nation-state unto himself, securing government contracts, conducting international relations and generally skirting any sort of accountability thanks to the copious shareholder value that he generates. The tone and timing of the Cybertruck event felt odd in that it happened one day after Musk’s profanity-laced rant at the New York Times’ Dealbook Summit, where he lashed out at advertisers leaving the social media platform formerly called Twitter. 

Musk’s ownership of what is now called X represents another example of that iron will. Whether you believe he purchased the platform to save free speech or just promote his own business interests, it’s been an objective, financial disaster that has exacerbated some of his worst qualities and put them on display for the world to see. 

Gallery: Tesla Cybertruck Delivery Event (2023)

Or maybe the two events aren't so incongruent. If you choose to be pessimistic about the Cybertruck, it’s hard not to see parallels between that vehicle and what happened with X. Or at least, it's hard not to see the behaviors of one man contributing to both situations. These days, when Musk wants something to happen, it happens, all consequences be damned. He’s more powerful than ever and can do whatever he wants, more than ever. 

This is not to say that the Cybertruck won’t be a sales success—or at least very popular. As usual, Tesla’s delivery event in Austin drew a crowd and wider media coverage (including at this publication) that no other automaker can match. It is the ultimate hype machine, perhaps more than the Model 3 ever was. Tesla will undoubtedly sell every Cybertruck it can build, regardless of the price, and every truck will turn every head that sees it on the road until the end of time. There are fun and innovative things about the truck, too, from its over-the-top specs to the fact that it’s going to help people stay excited about electric vehicles at a time when many have doubts about them. 

Financial success for Tesla is another story. Sure, Musk did succeed in bringing a truck to market that met his wild expectations. But just over a month before today’s event, he warned Tesla investors and fans alike that they should “temper their expectations” around the vehicle, citing countless production challenges that could equal years before production is stable and profitable. “Don’t resist me” has transformed into “We dug our own grave,” which, again, says a lot about how Musk is operating lately. 

Gallery: Tesla Cybertruck

The bigger issue for me is that at the end of the day, as novel and surprising as it is, the Cybertruck is another big, expensive, resource-intensive EV—and that’s not something the world needs right now. We’ve seen take after take questioning the electric future as demand proves to be uneven, and while that doomerism is greatly exaggerated, there are real market forces at work there. Many buyers are turned off by the huge, expensive electric trucks and SUVs that now dominate the EV world. Price, and the dearth of public charging, are the two biggest reasons EV demand is in a waning period in America. The Cybertruck may be exciting to the hardcore Tesla fanbase, but it isn’t going to change that situation.

And given Tesla’s penchant for delays, it feels likely that the base $60,990 Cybertruck slated for 2025 will take longer than that to arrive, leaving most buyers with the nearly $90,000-plus examples. Do we really need more of those? Does Tesla need more vehicles like that? 

It’s true that Tesla shouldn’t be tasked with delivering a public good; it may have an altruistic mission on the door, but capitalism is still capitalism. Yet I think a much bigger financial and social coup d’etat would’ve been Tesla’s long-awaited $25,000-ish EV. That’s the car I wish we could’ve seen on Thursday. It’s the car that would’ve blown all those anti-EV concerns out of the water (including charging access, since it’d be a Tesla, after all.) It would’ve done more to “accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy” than any Cybertruck ever did. The world could certainly use more affordable, small EVs to replace gas-burning cars, and maybe convince people they don’t actually need a 600-mile car where the battery alone weighs more than a Mazda Miata. That’s as close to a social good as any car company can deliver right now. 

And let’s face it: love it or loathe it, Tesla is just about the only automaker right now that could pull that off at scale. (Outside of China, anyway.) Had the design and production resources gone to that car instead of the Cybertruck, we’d be having a very different conversation today about the future of electric cars. At some point within Tesla, that must have happened, and I wonder how much Musk’s insistence on the Cybertruck being the Cybertruck played a role in that. Now we have to wonder how long Tesla is going to take a bath, financially speaking, on getting this truck up and running. 

Tesla Model 2, the render of Motor1.com

A rendering of the affordable Tesla EV with "Cybertruck" design cues, as referenced in Isaacson's book.

You can blame what Isaacson calls Musk’s “reality-distorting willfulness” on some of this. According to the book, the company had been teasing the $25,000 EV idea publicly since at least 2020. They've long known it would be an engine for growth. Executives told Musk that “in order for Tesla to grow at 50% a year, it needed to have an inexpensive small car,” something that could have twice as much demand and sales as the Model 3 and Model Y. But Musk has insisted that the next step needed to be a fully autonomous robotaxi instead; anything less than that, he said, would be boring and not transformative enough. 

Ultimately, his team placated him by convincing him to build this cheap EV and the robotaxi on the same platform, probably in Mexico, but its success depends on Tesla’s ability to deliver full autonomy—something it isn’t anywhere close to yet. Instead, we wait for that, and probably several more years for the Cybertruck to get to that promised $60,000 price tag. 

That’s what reality-distorting willfulness gets you. But we’ve seen a lot of that lately, haven’t we?

Got a tip for us? Email: tips@insideevs.com