When Raphael Zammit saw Tesla Inc.’s Cybertruck pull onto the stage late Thursday, his initial reaction was a mix of shock and horror.
Zammit, who is chair of the graduate program in transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, said his smartphone started blowing up with texts from auto designer friends expressing similar sentiments. But after a few minutes, Zammit, who has worked as a senior designer for General Motors Co., Hyundai Motor Co., and Volkswagen AG, started to see the truck through a different lens.
“It appears at first glance to be so naïve,” said Zammit. “But it might be — and this is a big might — one of the most brilliant moves ever, and the market will tell us. It’s not designed for designers.”
Tesla’s electric pickup concept, which has a triangular peaked roof and blocky, video-game graphic lines, has generated a flood of mocking memes and online commentary. Some of that was aimed at a demonstration by the vehicle’s chief designer of its “Tesla armor glass,” which went spectacularly awry when he unintentionally smashed two of the truck’s windows with a metallic ball.
Despite the snafu, the Cybertruck got enormous publicity, and scores of customers have placed $100 deposits for a vehicle that won’t be in production until late 2021 at the earliest.
Wall Street was underwhelmed with the pickup, which starts at $39,000. Tesla shares dropped as much as 7% Friday, and Barclays Plc analyst Brian Johnson concluded Detroit’s three automakers, which control 92% of the U.S. truck market, can “breathe a sigh of relief.”
But Zammit says the polarizing design — which may be trying to shatter comparisons to other iconic vehicles like GM’s hulking Hummer and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s husky Jeep Wrangler — may serve Tesla well on a number of fronts, from marketing to manufacturing.
“From an intellectual standpoint, it’s ‘no compromise’ to the extreme. These are words that car designers use all the time, but this literally is it. I’ve never seen anything that is this raw, it’s like a mechanic made it.”
“When I saw the price tag, that’s when it clicked. I thought, ‘This is a business move, and a story move.’ The vehicle is truly a marketing move.”
Profit Straight Off
“The reason I say it may be just the most brilliant thing ever is it may be the cheapest vehicle ever to manufacture. Stamping and tooling is extremely expensive, bending glass is extremely expensive.”
“It might be economically amazing for Tesla. Look at details on the exterior of the car, it’s so de-contented. There’s so little investment on the aesthetic side, it’s almost like they could pull a profit straight off, possibly even on the lowest model.”
Big in China
“The market in China — I could see them receiving this even better than the niche market that wants to own a movie prop in the States.”
“That market also has a slightly greater affinity for things that are extreme. And again, being able to say ‘I have the best of’ — it’s a moving, driving superlative.”
Hummer vs Wrangler
“You can’t beat the Wrangler at what it does. Everyone knows the Wrangler is a simple vehicle, but it has the place as being the most functional, and therefore it has a cult following. I am wondering if part of their strategy was, ‘How do you beat the Wrangler? You go even more extreme.’”
“Hummer had as its tagline –‘Like nothing else.’”
“A lot of the truck market just wants to be able to say they’ve got the most intense, the most off-road, the most extreme. I can imagine some other name plates that might be jealous that they now have a literally bulletproof car.”
“It’s all about being able to have the bragging rights.”
“The smashing of the glass may have been the most tragic thing in this space that I’ve ever seen.”
“If he didn’t have the rocket steel, if it wasn’t bulletproof — and if that glass hadn’t broken — the story is complete.”
“It’s not about how it looks, it’s about just being the most different.”