Why Silicon Valley Is All Wrong About the Cybertruck

Elon Musk’s future Tesla is a truck like the iPhone is a phone

Silicon Valley is all wrong about the Cybertruck, but not like it was wrong about Apple’s AirPods or Amazon’s Echo Show.

The Cybertruck reimagines what a truck is, constitutionally. It’s such a savage departure from our expectations that define a “truck” that we need a new word. It’s in a class of its own.

The Cybertruck may be hired for similar jobs as the Ford F-150 (as Musk asserted), but it consequates much more.

Personally, I see parallels to Steve Jobs’ 2007 launch of the iPhone — a generation-defining moment that birthed a new category: “an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator.” It may have been unknown that day, but it didn’t take long to feel the enormity of the iPhone’s importance as a modifier of human experience. I have a similar sense about the Cybertruck, at least in terms of the symbolism it offers and what its design portends.

Tesla’s Cybertruck is a truck like the iPhone is a phone. Though the word “phone” is embedded in the name iPhone, it primarily serves as an homage to the category it redefined; as an anchor to the familiar, rather than as a predictor of its potential.

Similarly, Cybertruck necessarily encodes the word “truck” in its name to throw people off. By aligning with today’s popular conception of “truckness” (big, heavy towing capacity, acceleration, roominess), Tesla can buy time to fulfill its grander ambitions.

In the same way the “i” in iPhone concealed the ultimate arc of the device, the “cyber” in Cybertruck holds the secret for what comes next and points to why Silicon Valley (with the exception of Marques Brownlee) has got it all wrong.

Again.

A detour through the Mojave Desert

The last time my words failed me, I was in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Before I could even see it, I heard the low rumble of a military battlecraft masquerading as an SUV swerving down a city street.

At its consumer debut, the Hummer was controversial and brash, having exited the theater of war with modest modifications to make it more suitable for the theater of cul de sacs and tricycles. Despite its girthiness in the suburbs, the Hummer’s pedigree made it a preferable choice for pummeling through the hinterland. These days, Hummer sightings are rare, as its ridiculously low fuel economy (10 miles per gallon) came up against the economic hardships of the Great Recession, critically dampening demand. GM then attempted, and failed, to sell off the brand. Hummer production ceased in 2010.

Photo: Gunnery Sergeant Mark Oliva

The story of the Hummer is relevant not just because its appearance disabused our stereotypes of what a truck should look like, but also because the Hummer was one of the first vehicles ordained with autonomous self-driving superpowers. In 2003, I was attending Carnegie Mellon University and worked on a design project on telematics — the year before CMU’s Red Team entered Sandstorm and H1ghlander into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a 142-mile race for self-driving cars with a $1 million prize bounty.

Carnegie Mellon University’s autonomous Humvee. Photo: Carnegie Mellon Red Team

As it had with amphibious vehicles in earlier wars and the Cold War, the military sought to advance the development of autonomous vehicles to get an upper hand in what was turning out to be increasingly urban fields of battle in Afghanistan and Iraq and to counter improvisational tactics of foreign fighters. Vehicles that could drive themselves could greatly reduce U.S. casualties from roadside bombs and IEDs. The Grand Challenge offered a cost-effective way to drive innovation in the event that the Iraq War took longer than expected.

With the deposition of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. mission became less clear. What was sold as a mission to liberate the Iraqi people from a mad dictator hellbent on using weapons of mass destruction on his neighbors turned into a rudderless occupation. Following a succession of idempotent civilian leaders, the army finally installed anti-insurgency expert General David Petraeus. He advocated for a high-touch, human-intensive, door-to-door approach to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population, effectively nixing the promise of autonomous Humvee patrols. That, and the increasing reliance on overhead surveillance and drone attacks, meant that vehicular autonomy would need to find another market.

More than a decade later, these technology solutions have finally entered the consumer market as mobility products from startups like Tesla, Uber, Cruise, and others. Google (doing business as Waymo) hired many engineers straight from the DARPA Grand Challenge, including Chris Urmson, the technical team lead of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge; Mike Montemerlo, the software lead for the Stanford team that won in 2005; and ex-Otto, ex-Uber, and Church of A.I. founder Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge.

First Main Street, then Mars

Cyber Dreams by Jean-Marc Denis

The DARPA Grand Challenge provided a glimpse of vehicles behaving in a way we’d never seen before, but they were built for hostile, dusty, and remote environs that seldom resembled the urban environments where most of us drive. Back in 2004, it was hard to envision derivatives of Sandstorm and H1ghlander driving down Main Street. But now, that once-impossible future seems to be just around the corner — or now, if you took Elon Musk at his word six months ago.

Elon Musk discussing hands-free Autopilot with Lex Friedman on April 12, 2019.

Lex Friedman: Do you see Tesla’s full self-driving as… requiring supervision of the human being?

Elon Musk: I think it will require detecting hands on wheel for at least six months or something like that from here.

Of course, Musk has to believe this. Autopilot’s success is essential to Tesla’s viability.

Furthermore, Musk cites Blade Runner 2049 as a direct inspiration for the Cybertruck’s design. While it’s possible that Tesla designers took only external aesthetic cues from these vehicles, it’s worth noting that most modern sci-fi films portray a collaborative relationship between the human driver and a conversational self-driving system—like Autopilot. The inspiration, therefore, may go deeper than just the angular lines to reveal a different kind of utilitarian relationship between humans and their modes of transport.

Lest we forget, Musk’s ultimate goal isn’t to dominate terrestrial roadways (though that may happen along the way), but rather to create the preconditions for the human race to persist — on this planet and as a multiplanetary species. He said it himself — while the Cybertruck may find its first home on planet Earth, the Tesla Cybertruck may well be destined to become the first manned vehicle to drive the surface of Mars:

So, rather than the buggy-style rovers portrayed in Ad Astra being the future of extraterrestrial mobility…

Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

… perhaps subsequent iterations of the Tesla Cybertruck might look more like the RT02 of Prometheus on planet LV223:

The RT02 Transport Vehicle has some familiar-looking hubcaps, no?

Using brutalism to kill our techno-romance

Before humanity’s initial interstellar exploits, our relationships with discrete technologies are going to change.

Today, many people love their phones and their cars. So important are these relationships that some go so far as to name their devices like they would their pets or offspring. And while a deep personal connection between phone and owner will persist, I’m not sure that’ll hold for vehicular accomplices.

Yes, we will own cars in the future, but they’ll be more like trophies—more like Cameron’s dad in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sure, a few hundred thousand people may buy out the first release of Tesla Cybertrucks (to fund subsequent development, just like with the Roadster), but a long-term play for self-driving vehicles has always been unlocking fractional ownership, with hordes of car-for-hire vehicles roaming the streets like a pack of AutoM8s in Daniel Suarez’s prescient sci-fi novel Daemon and earning their owners some extra cash by operating as autonomous public taxis. This was and is the generational game plan for Uber, Lyft, and especially Tesla. Have you read parts of the Tesla licensing agreement or Musk’s 2016 Master Plan, Part Deux? It’s all there, spelled out for you:

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.

You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

For those of us who have never owned a vehicle (like me!), nothing much will change, except we will become the majority. Sure, we’ll still appreciate the attractiveness of particular models, but in a detached, “yeah, that’s nice” kind of way. The Cybertruck’s low-poly brutalist lines will only make it easier (over time) to see this device as pure utility, rather than an object of desire. It commands respect but not lust (unlike some of Tesla’s previous designs). This visual language is intentional and is about rewriting the rules of how we interrelate with vehicles.

As Kara Swisher has pointed out, owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse.

Putting the cyber into Cybertruck

I can’t pinpoint the origin of my interest in “cyber” stuff. Maybe it was reading Marc Silvestri’s comic Cyber Force or the government’s goofy use of “cyberspace” to refer to the internet (see also USCYBERCOM). Or maybe it’s because “cybersex” emerged as something else to do in AOL chat rooms.

Regardless, Norbert Wiener is the guy who coined the neologism in his 1948 book, Cybernetics, and words matter.

Assuming I’m even 20% right about Tesla’s ambitions for the Cybertruck, and that, in the self-driving future, we treat our cars like we treat lawnmowers, and the Cybertruck’s exoskeleton design is built without curves because the metal is necessary for interplanetary use, then the choice of “cyber” wasn’t just cool or incidental. No, the Greek origin of the word “cyber” means something specific.

In Cybernetics, Wiener writes:

We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek πηδαλιούχος or steersman. In choosing this term, we wish to recognize that the first significant paper on feedback mechanisms is an article on governors, which was published by Clerk Maxwell in 1868, and that governor is derived from a Latin corruption of πηδαλιούχος. We also wish to refer to the fact that the steering engines of a ship are indeed one of the earliest and best-developed forms of feedback mechanisms.

The Cybertruck, therefore, is but a rudder intended to steer humanity toward its own salvation. How else do you move such a stubborn animal race forward if not by goading us from one mirage to another, enlisting us as our own accomplices as Musk continues his march to translate cyber fiction into cyber fact.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

Inventor of the hashtag. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Previously: Google, Uber, Molly (YC W18).

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