Editor’s note: Brett Smith is director of the Propulsion Technologies & Energy Infrastructure Group at the Center for Automotive Research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
(CNN) — When Elon Musk introduced Tesla’s Cybertruck, it sent the Internet into a frenzy of memes and social media posts, comparing the truck to everything from a doorstop to the SpongeBob Squarepants character Flats the Flounder. But those who have been in the auto industry for a while noticed another distinct resemblance: The Cybertruck is certainly reminiscent, if not derivative, of the classic DMC DeLorean.
Made famous by its role as a time traveling sports car in the Back to the Future movies, the DeLorean had the hard edges of the stainless steel Cybertruck and the angular design. However, unlike the Cybertruck, the DeLorean did not have the performance to back up its styling. Only 9,000 of the futuristic sports cars were made before production halted in 1983.
Both cars were designed by iconic renegades. Unlike Musk, John Z. DeLorean was an automotive insider. But they both were perturbed by the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The two shared a vision for breaking the mold in what they perceived as a stagnant automotive industry. But, of the two, Musk has proven to have the staying power.
Just as the DeLorean was 40 years ago, the Cybertruck design is absolutely polarizing. And, for Musk, that is perfect. Tesla is trying to enter the light-duty pickup truck — the most lucrative sector in the US automotive market. To do it with a lookalike product would be challenging — and definitely not the Elon way. Making the Cybertruck as different on the outside as it is on the inside helps separate it from the status quo.
Musk has tweeted that the company received more than 200,000 reservations just days after the unveiling. A remarkable number, even if reservations only require a $100 deposit. The pickup truck market is huge. Musk doesn’t need every potential truck buyer to like his design. He just needs 5% to 10% of prospective pickup buyers to absolutely love it. If he can do that, it might be the beginnings of a hit.
The Cybertruck will give Tesla an opportunity to establish a toehold in the segment and build credibility. But it might not be the long-term design direction for Tesla’s pickup offering. In an interview on the Recode Decode podcast with Kara Swisher last year, Musk admitted the truck might have a hard time finding a market. “You know, I actually don’t know if a lot of people will buy this pickup truck or not, but I don’t care,” he said at the time. “If there’s only a small number of people that like that truck, I guess we’ll make a more conventional truck in the future.”
That message is really important. Musk can use the edgy design as a proof of concept — a first step to show the world that an all-electric pickup really is viable. If the Cybertruck establishes a beachhead, but doesn’t gain mass market acceptance, Tesla can bring in a more conventional design to appease the traditional buyer.
Yes, the Cybertruck design is polarizing, but it will likely hit a nerve with enough consumers to get Tesla a place in the light-duty pickup market. Whether they can enter the mainstream market, though, is anyone’s guess.
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