Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University in Baltimore and is the author of Space Settlements (Columbia University Press, July 2019).
Tesla's Elon Musk shatters expectations (and glass) with a bulletproof electric pickup that looks like it expects you to shoot at it. Maybe you will.
Elon Musk is having a complicated week. On Wednesday, a prototype of the Starship rocket—designed by his company SpaceX to eventually fly humans to the Moon and Mars—suffered a large explosion while it was being loaded with super-cooled fuel in Texas. And on Thursday evening, his other company, the maker of stylish electric vehicles Tesla, ran into a roadblock at another high-stakes launch.
Musk was onstage with Tesla’s lead designer, Franz von Holzhausen, for the debut of their newest model. Dubbed Cybertruck, the electric pickup, which will not begin production until late 2021, boasts a host of eye-popping specifications: The most expensive version should have a maximum range of 500 miles between charges, the ability to tow 14,000 pounds, and a 0-to-60 time of under 3 seconds. Musk also promised that the truck had unprecedented invulnerability. “You want a truck that’s really tough, not fake tough,” he told his audience.
To demonstrate, von Holzhausen hit the truck’s stainless steel structural body panels (made from the same alloy, Tesla says, used on its space-bound vehicles) with a sledgehammer several times, without leaving a scratch. “What else can we do?” Musk asked von Holzhausen. He showed videos of a 9-millimeter bullet hitting the skin with minimal damage. Then he asked, “What about the glass?”
Cybertruck occupants, according to Tesla, are protected behind something called Armor Glass. Von Holzhausen returned with steel spheres and proceeded to chuck the balls at the truck’s side windows. Both pieces of glass cracked and cratered on impact. “Oh my fucking god,” said a clearly surprised Musk. “At least they didn’t go through.”
The “bulletproof” exterior of the Cybertruck is part of a growing trend in automobile design and marketing: Tesla, like makers of increasingly aggressive-looking trucks and SUVs, seems to assume that the streets their vehicles will be driving through are going to be extremely unsafe. SUVs in particular, bulked up beneath their plastic cladding and Brobdingnagian prows, have long been sold on cartoonishly belligerent styling cues. But Tesla’s protective countermeasures go beyond style. All new models from the company, including their earlier X and S cars, include hospital-grade air filtration that can be activated via “bioweapon defense mode” from the vehicle’s touchscreen instrument panel. And if you’re stuck somewhere in your Cybertruck, you’ll be able to draw line level electricity and compressed air directly from the truck’s system, turning the vehicle into a mobile power station for any job site, campground, or disaster zone.
If this sounds like something out of apocalyptic science fiction, it’s meant to. Musk’s invocation of “cyber” and promotional tie-ins to the famous “Los Angeles/November 2019” date card from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner drive the point home further. In that film and its sequel, climate change and other cataclysms have rendered Earth hard to inhabit, and an elite have begun to emigrate off-world.
The Cybertruck’s hard angles and Brutalist aesthetic take the response to an imagined hostile planet up a notch, from defensive to offensive. It looks like it is daring someone to shoot at it. But its most obvious science-fiction predecessors aren’t the comparatively delicate flying police cars of Blade Runner, but the low-slung armored troop carrier that hauled Colonial Space Marines around the extraterrestrial landscape in James Cameron’s Aliens, the sequel to another Ridley Scott film. It could also be a descendant of the military-spec Batmobile of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight, driven by a vigilante antihero through the urban corruption of Gotham.
For those affluent buyers willing to drop up to $70,000 on an electric truck that looks like movie prop, the message is clear: The future will be dangerous; come with me if you want to live. The Cybertruck radiates angular menace on its exterior, while assuring its occupants that they will remain safe inside. Of course, the science-fiction precedents for this machine were deliberately overblown critiques of an antisocial response to changing worlds. But the Cybertruck plays it straight. Even as pedestrian safety on real-world city streets is increasingly threatened by oversized, over-stylized SUVs—some of which are themselves being piloted by machines—the design of the Cybertruck doubles down on autonomy and aggression. (Self-driving, Tesla says, will be a $7,000 option)
After the tank in its prototype Starship exploded, SpaceX’s communications office issued a statement: “The purpose of today's test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected.” This way of working has a name in rocket science—“test to failure.” Even if this Starship has to be rebuilt, the data collected in the explosion will help the next generation of spacecraft to last longer and better. Similarly, after the second window in the Cybertruck got smashed by von Holzhausen, Musk quipped, “We’ll fix it in post.”
For wealthy people and companies, there’s always another chance to get it right, maybe even someday, another planet to go to if Earth’s climatic and social systems are pushed to their breaking points. Among those left behind, the lucky ones can try to ride it out in the Cybertruck. The rest of us better get ready to start throwing stuff.