How To Build a Car That Kills People: Cybertruck Edition

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This story first appeared in Streetsblog USA.

After years of delays, multiple price hikes, and exactly one infamous steel ball mishap, Tesla finally handed over the keys to the very first Cybertruck on Thursday.

For a car that barely exists yet — the $60,000 base model won’t be available until 2025, and the company only has a “goal” of producing 250,000 of the $80,000 and $99,000 versions before that — Streetsblog readers probably already know a fair amount about Elon Musk’s long-awaited apocalypse-bunker-on-wheels. Since its 2019 unveiling, social media has been saturated in images of the vehicle, which has been variously compared to a roided-out Blade Runner jalopy and an industrial refrigerator, and tech journalists have been questioning whether it will turn out to be a “bad joke or a big mistake.”

Still, as it achieves its final Pokemon evolution, it’s worth pausing to consider just how thoroughly the Cybertruck has come to represent some of the worst problems of American transportation culture, even as it purports to address many of them. Or, as Engadget’s Nathan Ingraham eloquently put it: “Musk has basically built a vehicle that, for a steep price, enables the worst impulses of US drivers and gives them the ‘freedom’ to do whatever they want.”

Let’s start with safety, particularly for vulnerable road users. To its credit, like all Teslas, the Cybertruck will come equipped with an automatic pedestrian detection system. Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the vehicle seems to be maximized for pedestrian extinction if that technology fails or makes a dangerous judgment call, which Teslas often do.

Colossal height? Check. In promotional photographs, the hood of the Cybertruck sits squarely at the level of the thoracic organs of a 6-foot Musk, and the marketing copy promises an “Adaptive Air Suspension” system which will lift the car a stunning 17.4 inches.
Deadly hood design? Check. The cyber truck comes equipped with a blunt, flat front end that’s essentially guaranteed to toss a walker or a cyclist under the car’s wheels rather than on top of the hood, where they statically sustain less serious injuries. Putting a steel battering ram on the front of a truck is doubly unnecessary because there isn’t even an engine under the hood. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the car’s steel “exoskeleton,” which the company brags can can withstand a blow from a sledgehammer and has edges so sharp that European automotive authorities have questioned where it will actually be street-legal.

Even the windshield — or, as Tesla calls it, the “shatter-resistant armor glass” — is thick enough to “make the cabin as quiet as outer space,” all the better not to hear a pedestrian screaming for the driver to please look up from the “massive 18.5 inch” touchscreen bolted to the dashboard. Tesla describes the Cybertruck as a “theater on wheels”; researchers describe these infotainment devices as “dangerously distracting.”
The guts of the Cybertruck tick off a few more boxes on the how-to-design-a-car-that-kills-everyone-outside-it checklist. The company claims it can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.6 seconds, which, if true, would mean it has a faster acceleration than most NASCAR and Formula 1 vehicles, with none of the accompanying engine roar to warn anyone that it’s coming. The headlight, meanwhile, is one single bar of light, which some experts are already worried will blind oncoming drivers.
And while Tesla fans are disappointed that the Cybertruck doesn’t have a battery big enough to drive beyond 340 miles — Elon Musk had promised a 500-mile range back in 2019 — all that lithium ion and stainless steel is still enough to tip the scales at a staggering 6,843 pounds.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a whole lot of your trunk space, an additional range extender battery will get you to “470+” miles. The company doesn’t say how much that extender will cost — but considering that heavier vehicles are deadlier in collisions, other road users will probably pay the price.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Cybertruck, though, isn’t the toddler-vaporizing “frunk,” or the obnoxious ads of the car driving through unspoiled streams. It might not even be its astonishingly inefficient use of precious battery materials, or the way that battery distorts drivers’ perception of how beneficial to society their cars really are. (Please do not get me started on the thing’s “BioWeapons Defense Mode,” an in-cabin HEPA filter that’s more likely to shield occupants from, say, tire particles from multi-ton EVs, rather than supervillains gassing city streets.)

Perhaps what’s most upsetting about the Cybertruck is what the vehicle suggests about how billionaires like Musk imagine the future of our world — and how willing many Americans are buy into that violent dystopia.

Or, as Paris Marx put it in his book “Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation”:

For the times when they are beyond the walls of their gated communities and need to drive (or be driven) outside of their exclusive tunnel systems, the Cybertruck will provide protection from the unruly mob that is the general public. With inequality in the United States having risen to higher levels than any time since the Great Depression and the accelerating effects of climate change creating the potential for hundreds of millions of climate refugees, the wealthy are making additional preparations for the moment when the public finally turns against them—hence the walls, tunnels, and armored vehicles.

In 2020, Elon Musk announced that he aimed to turn Tesla into “a leader in apocalypse technology.” Perhaps a better ambition would be to take a hard look at who’s cheerleading the apocalypse in the first place.

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