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Tesla's Cybertruck recall is par for the costly course for Elon Musk

The company's CEO has proved himself to be much more interested in flashy aesthetics and cool ideas than building something sustainable.

The Tesla Cybertruck is, for all its sharp angles, a Rorschach test. I saw one in the wild for the first-time last week, the gray behemoth slowly pulling through an intersection in my neighborhood. It drew the reaction its driver likely wanted out of two bystanders, both men, who seemed impressed by the shiny steel chassis. For my part, I could only see a very large pile of money, on wheels and on fire in the hopes of drawing envious glances.

There are arguably two arsonists in this metaphor: the driver, who paid at least $80,000 or more for one of the few Cybertrucks to be shipped out, and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla who first unveiled the Cybertruck in 2019 to great fanfare. That fanfare became more muted after the vehicle was actually released, and softened to a whimper on Friday when the company announced a recall on all 3,878 Cybertrucks delivered so far to deal with a faulty accelerator pedal that could become lodged in place.

A recall of that scale, paired with the other woes that Tesla is currently facing, is par for the course with Musk.

A recall of that scale, paired with the other woes that Tesla is currently facing, is par for the course with Musk. The Cybertruck itself is at best a costly distraction from maintaining the basic products of the company that had previously made him the richest man in the world. Instead, as ever, Musk is already looking ahead to his next vanity project, making clear he would rather produce something that he and his followers find cool than something actually well made.

There’s only enough room in this column to scratch the surface of the Cybertruck’s many flaws. Musk made a big deal of stressing the rugged capabilities that the vehicle will have in any dystopian future, claiming it is bulletproof and will be so waterproof that it could even briefly operate as a boat. And yet the warranty can be voided for taking the car through an automatic car wash, its panels have been pictured with large gaps and seemingly mismatched in color, and its supposed “armor glass” windows were more vulnerable than other cars in a hailstorm. Meanwhile, experts have expressed concern that the rigidity of the stainless steel limits shock-absorbing “crumple zones” and makes the Cybertruck more dangerous in collisions to pedestrians and other vehicles alike.

But for Musk, these are trifles compared to what clearly concerns him most: the vehicle’s aesthetic. The Cybertruck wasn’t designed to be a practical pickup truck that would beat Tesla’s competitors to market. It was designed to grab the kind of attention I saw on the street last week. It was designed to be purchased by the kind of people who are certain that they’d survive an apocalypse, even though their car’s computer system requires remote updates that would no longer be delivered.

In practice, the Cybertruck is a physical manifestation of Musk’s desire to be cool that overrides everything else. It’s his unfunny jokes for “edgy” fans that he has commented on himself using fake accounts with the most divorced man energy imaginable.  It’s his constant trolling on X, the company he bought as a gag that has become a lodestone constantly decreasing in value, in the name of attention.

His lack of focus has been bad for Tesla itself beyond the Cybertruck disaster. The company has lost its market dominance in China as other electric vehicle manufacturers have caught up or even surpassed Tesla — particularly when it comes to offering lower-cost models. Domestically, other automakers have been shifting to electric models on the back of massive subsidies for new production from the Biden administration. Last week, the company announced layoffs of more than 10% of its workforce, and Bloomberg News reports that number may be higher:

The actual number of people ushered out may exceed 20,000, according to people familiar with the company’s planning. Musk’s reasoning, according to one person with direct knowledge of his edicts, was that Tesla should reduce headcount by 20% because its vehicle deliveries dropped by that amount from the fourth quarter to the first quarter.

Previously, Musk was able to sell the supposed cool factor of his projects to investors and government officials. He founded the Boring Company to bring to life his idea for a “hyperloop” system that would move trains through vacuum tunnels at ridiculous speeds. The company meant to implement that vision, Hyperloop One, shut down last year. The Boring Company has managed to produce one small loop in Las Vegas that shuttles Tesla cars back and forth and successfully managed to divert California from implementing an actual high-speed rail plan that would have reduced demand for cars — including Teslas.

But now it seems that many are catching on to the ruse. Many members of what should be Tesla’s largest fanbase in America — liberals concerned about the environment — are turned off by Musk’s antics. Rather than learning from any of this, Musk is reportedly still focused on the cool over the practical. Tesla has not released a new model since 2022, and has announced no future models. Reuters reported that a plan to produce lower-cost models to woo new buyers has been scrapped, though Musk has denied that is the case.

Rather than learning from any of this, Musk is reportedly still focused on the cool over the practical.

But Musk did not dispute that his new focus is automated driving. Bloomberg also reported that Musk will be now pivoting to focus on “robotaxis,” which are basically what they sound like, as the next big thing. Accordingly, Tesla has been giving out free trials of its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software — a misnomer, as the driver is still required to be ready to take over at all times — in hopes of boosting subscriptions at a time when the stock price is taking a dive. It also likely hopes to use data collected from drivers to help move the robotaxi plans forward, though it will be years before that could possibly bear fruit.

This series of choices has investors spooked, as Musk repeatedly makes clear that he’d rather scurry off to the next shiny thing than build a sustainable company. Time and again, he has placed ego over practical innovation. Now he wants his board to reward it again by reapproving a $56 billion pay package that a judge previously rescinded at the request of Tesla shareholders. It’s as though the accelerator in Musk’s brain is lodged in place, forever propelling him forward at dangerous speeds with nobody around him willing to take the wheel. It’s arguably benefitted him for years, but Musk is getting dangerously close to running headfirst into reality and his life is noticeably lacking in crumple zones.