Cybertruck ‘stunt’ stirs debate about Tesla’s EV strategy

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Tesla Inc. said last week that its first electric pickup truck would likely be heavier than many anticipated, raising questions about the product’s commercial viability and the company’s electric vehicle strategy.

The revelation came after a Twitter post from Tesla CEO Elon Musk in late November depicting a Cybertruck and a smaller Ford F-150 chained together from the rear and facing in opposite directions, then accelerating at the same time. Many assumed that meant the two cars were of similar weight, with the Tesla being a stronger model. And details released by Tesla suggested that the Cybertruck would be able to haul more weight in its bed and cabin — or towed in a trailer behind it — than most versions of the F-150.

But in a letter last week to California regulators, Tesla’s senior managing policy adviser Sarah Van Cleve said the Cybertruck “should very likely qualify” as a “medium-duty” Class 2b-3 commercial vehicle that could significantly outweigh the F-150.

The development is significant, analysts say, as it highlights the nature of what Tesla is gambling with with its Cybertruck: that the brand can establish its own niche between light pickups and heavier vehicles. The outcome of that gamble could play into the broader appeal of EVs, as the Cybertruck is the first mass-market electric truck.

Nic Lutsey, director of the International Council on Clean Transportation’s electric vehicle program, noted that the market for light-duty pickups, like the F-150, is considerably larger.

“It was surprising to me that they aimed for the commercial segment, because it’s smaller. Why would they want to spec a vehicle for a smaller segment of users?” he said.

The maximum weight, including whatever can be hauled inside the bed or cabin, in Class 2b-3 vehicles could range from 8,501 to 14,000 pounds, compared with 6,001 to 8,500 pounds for the Ford F-150.

“It’s not a trivial difference,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for mobility at Navigant Research.

“Clearly, they’re trying to show this thing is tough and capable as any truck on the road,” he said. But “they shouldn’t have been testing it against that [F-150].” The Cybertruck’s four-wheel drive made it far better equipped for towing, he added, and Ford’s larger pickups, like the F-250, “share relatively few components” with the light-duty F-150.

“It was a completely invalid stunt to begin with. If you’re going to do it, it should’ve been with the F-250. Now, all of a sudden, those specs don’t look so great,” said Abuelsamid of Musk’s video.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Targeting a California rule

The November video, also played by Musk at the Cybertruck’s unveiling, wasn’t the only time Tesla’s chief executive has compared the two models. In a June appearance on a fan podcast, Musk promised a vehicle that would outpace the F-150’s functionality.

In her letter, Tesla’s Van Cleve was attempting to convince regulators in California to craft rules that would ultimately create an important new market for the Cybertruck.

The Advanced Clean Trucks rule, proposed in draft form by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), would establish the nation’s first sales mandate for zero-emissions models of trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles. At present, though, Class 2b-3 pickups would be exempt from the mandate until 2027, a policy that Van Cleve sought to have removed from the final rule.

“It is very much possible to electrify Class 2b-3 pickups,” she wrote, “and excluding them until 2027 would delay the transition of this very large segment of vehicles to zero-emissions technology.”

She also linked to a list of electric pickups — some of them from smaller classes already covered by California’s light-duty sales mandate — due for release by startups and major manufacturers in the coming years.

Last week, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols signaled that the board may make certain features of the rule tougher. But in its draft, the agency cited concerns about “the feasibility of manufacturers to comply” if 2b-3 pickups were subject to the sales mandate.

Manufacturers of some even larger vehicles, like transit buses and school buses, have found a growing market for their electric models from emissions-conscious public agencies, noted Alicia Birky, lead analyst for emerging freight technologies at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

However, sales in the Class 2b-3 segment are mostly made up of private fleets and self-employed buyers — landscapers, plumbers, contractors and others — who need large trucks for their business. “It’s almost entirely private,” said Birky.

And the extra weight of a battery might be a special concern for commercial vehicles, because it would limit the amount they could carry. “One of the big concerns has always been that if you try to electrify them, customers will have to buy up, in the next weight category, to get what they want,” she said.

Still, added Birky, there remained a market among those who buy large pickup trucks to tow boats and RVs, or for other types of leisure.

“It could also appeal to them. There’s plenty of people who buy [that class of vehicle] for recreational purposes,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you how many that is.”