Innovation or folly? The Cybertruck will test whether anyone still trusts Tesla

The Tesla Cybertruck, the first of which will be delivered Thursday four years after its debut, is loved and loathed. For fans, it's a symbol for what Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk stand for: creativity, irreverence, rebellion. Others see it as an act of hubris. It could be both.

Either way, the stakes are high. The automaker hasn't produced a new passenger model — save for refreshes or variants of existing vehicles — in more than three years, and profit margins have shrunk due to price cuts aimed at preserving its market share. The Cybertruck could be Tesla's magnum opus or its albatross.

Where the Cybertruck lands in the history books (or more likely, Wikipedia) will depend on the company's ability to navigate production woes and customer reception — particularly if it isn't embraced lovingly once it's in owners' hands. And of course, there's the other hurdle of producing a vehicle at scale that people love without losing money.

The next important step on this precarious journey begins at 2 p.m. CT November 30, when Tesla is expected to deliver the first of its long-awaited Cybertrucks to patient customers. The angular, stainless steel, futuristic-looking trucks will be revealed and delivered during the Thursday afternoon event at the Tesla Gigafactory in Austin — and likely with all the pomp, circumstance and electronic dance music we've come to expect from Tesla.

Some Tesla shareholders, Cybertruck customers and other VIP guests will attend in person. The event will be livestreamed for everyone else on a special landing page and likely on its YouTube channel and, of course, on X.

The stakes

If Tesla pulls off the Cybertruck, it might prove that it's still the rebellious upstart at heart, with the vision and dedication to break the norm. It could also give its bottom line a much needed boost and forever differentiate it from legacy rivals.

But the truck has faced many challenges and delays in getting to production. Musk has confessed that building the Cybertruck has been difficult due to its unique design and stainless-steel body, which has reportedly led to issues like gaps in between the panels. We don't yet know how much the Cybertruck will cost, but Musk has warned it will take time before it's a profitable vehicle for the automaker.

During Tesla's Q3 earnings call, Musk told investors that Tesla "dug our own grave with the Cybertruck." He said that scaling it will be tough and it will take at least 18 months before the pickup is profitable. The truck has already taken a chunk out of Tesla's earnings as the automaker's operating expenses increased 43% year-over-year. Musk said that Giga Texas will be able to produce about 250,000 Cybertrucks a year starting in 2025, but his timelines are often skewed and unreliable.

Stainless steel frame: A risky bet

Musk's goal for the Cybertruck was to be surprising, bold and to build something no one would expect because it didn't look like any other pickup truck out there.

"I don't care if anyone buys it," Musk said to his design team in 2019, according to Walter Isaacson's biography of the billionaire executive. "We're not doing a traditional boring truck. We can always do that later. I want to build something that's cool. Like, don't resist me."

As he and lead designer Franz von Holzhausen spitballed design ideas, they spoke about doing something revolutionary with the form and manufacturing process of the vehicle, which hadn't changed for pickups in 80 years. That caused them to shift their focus to the material used to make it. Rethinking the material, and even the physics of the vehicle's structure, opened their minds to new designs.

After discussing the possibility of aluminum and titanium, they settled on stainless steel, according to information revealed in Isaacson's biography. Charles Kuehmann, VP of materials engineering at both Tesla and SpaceX, had developed an ultra-hard stainless steel alloy that was "cold rolled" rather than requiring heat treatments. The team reasoned it was strong enough and cheap enough to use for both rocket ships and trucks. The steel body wouldn't need to be painted, could resist dents and would be able to bear the vehicle's structural load without relying on a chassis.

"Let's make the strength on the outside, make it an exoskeleton, and hang everything else from the inside of it," Musk told his engineers.

Building with stainless steel also meant that Tesla couldn't use its stamping machines to sculpt carbon fiber into body panels with curves and shapes. The truck would have to be sharp and angular, which was fine with Musk, who had been inspired by vehicles like those in the video games Cyberpunk 2077 and Halo, as well as films like "Blade Runner" and "The Spy Who Loved Me." In fact, Musk bought the 1970s Lotus Esprit that was used in the James Bond film for almost $1 million and displayed it in the Tesla design studio.

The choice of using stainless steel created its own unforeseen problems, though, and has caused the delay of the Cybertruck's launch. In theory, building a truck body with stainless steel panels should create a smooth, angular design. In practice, it's difficult to get those panels to line up properly without exposing large gaps. It's also hard to flatten the steel panels, reports The Wall Street Journal, citing people who have worked on the pickup. The metal is produced in coils, like giant rolls of paper towels, so when it's unrolled, it has a tendency to spring back into its rolled-up form.

Once the Cybertruck is on the road, customers might encounter challenges of their own. While the metal is likely to make it more resistant to dents and scratches, if it does get dented, fixing it will likely be a nightmare. Tesla already has a bad rep for inadequate servicing, with limited service centers, limited stock to replace parts, bad communications and long wait times for repair appointments. Given the difficulty of getting the Cybertruck to production at all, fixing one will probably be equally frustrating.

A bullet-proof truck?

During Tesla's initial Cybertruck reveal event in 2019, Musk asked his lead designer, Franz von Holzhausen, to demonstrate the strength of the truck's "armor glass" by throwing a metal ball at the window. Rather than bouncing off, it cracked the window significantly. They tried again with the back window, leaving yet another baseball-sized shatter in the glass.

Musk has said he wants the Cybertruck to be bullet-proof. Might we get yet another, potentially louder and more dangerous, demonstration at this week's event? When in Texas...

Only 10 Cybertrucks delivered

Tesla's global director of product design Javier Verdura said at a keynote address in November that the company intends to deliver 10 Cybertrucks at the event, according to Mexican newspaper Milenio. As Tesla has done before, those first 10 trucks will probably go to Tesla employees and possibly a high-profile individual. For instance, during the Tesla Model X event in 2015 early investors Ira Ehrenpreis and Steve Jurvetson took the stage to take their cars.

Tesla could not be reached to confirm.

The automaker often only delivers a handful of cars during its delivery events. A year ago at Tesla's Semi delivery event, the automaker handed out about five trucks to Pepsi. And back in 2017, the Model 3's initial delivery event saw just 30 cars being delivered, mostly to employees.

Whether 10 is an accurate number, we can also assume a small number of first units to be delivered based on Tesla's order agreement that threatened to sue Cybertruck buyers who resell the vehicle without permission during their first year of ownership. Tesla quickly walked back on that language, but automakers usually only include such clauses if they have a limited quantity of vehicles.

While Tesla has clearly set a precedent for anticlimactic delivery events, customers who have been waiting for this day for years may still be disappointed in the modest offering. Musk estimated the Cybertruck has about 1 million reservations during Tesla's third-quarter earnings call.

Tesla first announced its Cybertruck in 2019, claiming first deliveries would be scheduled for 2021. The automaker continued to push out the production and delivery dates, due to supply chain headaches and challenges in building the unique vehicle.