Tesla’s Cybertruck is coming soon. Maybe.

More than three years after Elon Musk stunned the auto industry with an electric pickup truck that looked more like a stealth fighter than a way to haul two-by-fours and drywall, Tesla said last month that she would start building the vehicle by the end. of 2023.

The announcement helped fuel a rally in Tesla’s share price, but also reignited a debate over whether the oft-delayed pickup, dubbed Cybertruck, is a work of genius or proof of genius. pride of Mr. Musk.

It would be very different for Mr. Musk, the CEO of Tesla, to build a pickup truck that looked like the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado or Ram 1500 pickup – three of the best-selling vehicles in the United States.

With its angular stainless steel body, the Cybertruck is an attempt to redefine the pickup in the same way that Tesla upended conventional automotive industry wisdom by proving that battery-powered vehicles could be practical and cost-effective.

Tesla says a high-end version of the truck will be able to tow 14,000 pounds and accelerate faster than a Porsche 911. The doors of the Cybertruck will open automatically as the driver approaches.

The truck is significant because it will be Tesla’s first new passenger vehicle in three years and could help breathe life into a model line that some buyers consider dated. Established automakers like Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have launched several new electric models since the Model Y, Tesla’s newest car, went on sale in early 2020.

But the Cybertruck is so overdue that some automotive experts wonder if it has become another example of Mr. Musk’s penchant for pushing technological boundaries to the brink of disaster. In 2018, his determination to build a highly automated assembly line for the Model 3 sedan led to “production hell” and nearly killed the company before moving to more standard manufacturing practices.

This time it’s the use of stainless steel for the body of the Cybertruck that has industry experts shaking their heads.

Stainless steel resists corrosion and does not need to be painted, eliminating cost and the need for environmentally toxic chemical coatings. But it is also expensive and difficult to shape and weld. Stainless steel is generally heavier than the steel used in most other cars, which reduces range.

There’s a reason only one automaker has ever tried to mass-produce a car with a stainless steel body. It was DeLorean, who went bankrupt after building less than 10,000 cars, which are best known for their starring role as a time machine in the “Back to the Future” movies.

“Musk is an example of how fetishizing tech start-ups and their leaders can eventually lead to those leaders making bad decisions,” said Patrick McQuown, executive director of entrepreneurship at Towson University in Maryland, in an email. “For me, the insistence on stainless steel is a manifestation of his belief that he has a unique understanding of the market and that the market will buy anything he comes up with because it comes from the mind of Elon Musk. .”

Stainless steel costs more than the steel used in most automobiles because it contains chromium and often other ingredients, such as nickel and molybdenum, which are in high demand. The tendency for stainless steel to spring back to its original shape means that it cannot be stamped into fenders and other parts as easily as the softer steel used by most car manufacturers. It also requires special welding techniques.

These challenges likely explain why Tesla is two years behind in manufacturing the Cybertruck, which the company plans to produce at its Austin, Texas, plant.

“Tesla thinks they can solve any problem and don’t need to learn from anyone else,” said Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, “and then they get stuck in a corner.”

Tesla said in an earnings report last month that it would start producing the Cybertruck before the end of this year. But Mr. Musk qualified that statement during a conference call with analysts and investors, saying the company would not start manufacturing the vehicle in large numbers until 2024. When Tesla unveiled the Cybertruck, he said the vehicle would go on sale in 2021.

The vehicle “will not contribute significantly to the bottom line” in 2023, Mr. Musk said, “but it will be next year.”

Tesla’s delays have allowed traditional automakers to beat it to market with electric pickup trucks and left Tesla with nothing to offer the many Americans who prefer pickup trucks to cars or sport utility vehicles.

Buyers are calling for electric trucks. Ford has stopped taking reservations for its F-150 Lightning, a battery-powered version of the best-selling vehicle, because it can’t make vehicles fast enough. Rivian, a new electric vehicle company, is also struggling to produce enough of its pickup, the R1T, to keep up with demand.

GM’s GMC division sells a Hummer pickup truck, but in relatively small numbers. And Chevrolet should start delivering an electric Silverado this year. Ram has announced that it will launch a battery-powered 1500 truck next year.

“The first-mover advantage that Tesla could have exploited is completely gone,” Mr. Rajkumar said. “It’s a huge lost opportunity.”

Tesla has shared virtually no details on how it will overcome the challenges of working with stainless steel, which include safety. The steel used in most cars is designed to crumple in the event of a collision, absorbing energy and protecting passengers. Stainless steel does not crease as easily, exposing passengers to greater impact force.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

There are indications that the truck will use the same or similar stainless steel formula as used by SpaceX, the rocket company run by Mr Musk. Charles Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX, holds the same title at Tesla.

Mr. Kuehmann was a co-founder of QuesTek, a materials design company, and worked on a design team at Apple. Its reputation as a pioneer in the use of new materials gives some engineering experts confidence that Tesla has developed an alloy that will overcome the challenges of stainless steel.

Mr. Kuehmann did not respond to a request for comment.

The Cybertruck’s body has none of the curves typical of most vehicles, but instead consists of flat steel panels that experts say are likely laser cut and then welded together, eliminating the need for powerful machinery. stamping.

“Overall, the concept might make sense,” said Kip Findley, professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, who has researched advanced steel for vehicles. “It advances the development of steel and inspires people to think about steel in a different way, which is good.”

“But there are open questions,” Mr Findley added. These include how owners will repair damage to the Cybertruck’s body, which Tesla calls an “exoskeleton.” Stainless steel dent less easily than conventional auto body steel, but once damaged it is more difficult to get it back into shape.

As the only company mass-producing stainless steel vehicle bodies, Tesla won’t be able to take advantage of the economies of scale that other automakers share. This could make the truck more expensive to produce.

When Tesla introduced the Cybertruck, it said the starting price would be just under $40,000. But the final price should be much higher.

Tesla is taking reservations, which cost $100, for the Cybertruck without naming a price for the vehicle. Tesla did not say how many reservations it has accumulated.

If nothing else, the Cybertruck will stand out in a crowded field.

Stainless steel bodies are “definitely possible,” said Wei Xiong, associate professor of metallurgy and materials design at the University of Pittsburgh, noting that computer-aided design allows researchers to develop high-performance materials much more. faster than a few years ago. “I can understand why he wants to go.”

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