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Tesla’s Cybertruck: A make or break moment for Elon Musk

Early Friday, Sydney time, Elon Musk’s biggest punt in years is due to be rolled out: the final version of Tesla’s Cybertruck. This vehicle could either further boost his reputation and that of his carmaker or blow it apart if it’s a dud.

Musk announced last week that Tesla had already started shipping the truck (Tesla’s sharply angled version of the standard US pickup or ‘truck,’ like an Australian ute) in North America ahead of the launch to enable immediate sales.

The official launch will take place at a glitzy function at Tesla’s Austin, Texas plant where the truck is being manufactured.

The truck was first announced in 2019, but the pandemic and manufacturing problems ruined Musk’s ambitions to start production as quickly as possible. This resulted in three delays to the start of manufacturing, with Tesla only beginning to make the vehicle in Austin on a trial basis since July.

Tesla shares eased 1% on Wednesday to $US244.14 but have surged 28% in the past month in anticipation of a successful launch of the new vehicle.

The market reaction will be interesting on Thursday and Friday, US time, but the initial sales success won’t be known until the end of the first quarter of 2024.

Musk has been talking up the vehicle for years amid delays, promises of a launch, delays, and more promises. Costs have risen, and some promised features have disappeared.

The sharp angles of the vehicle make it hard and expensive to manufacture (and will likely prove to be a panel beater’s nightmare).

The body is made from stainless steel, which has been shown to be difficult to shape into a recognisable vehicle shape due to its angular look and the fact that it is almost impossible to bend and shape, making it best used in sheets. This results in gaps in the body between panels, which some find unsightly compared to the highly accurate manufacturing processes seen in vehicles from Japanese makers like Toyota and Honda, as well as Chinese, German, and South Korean rivals.

Musk told investors in October that “demand is off the charts” for Cybertruck, but he also acknowledged the “enormous challenges” in reaching volume production and making the model cash flow positive.

The price range should be made public today, with most industry reports claiming a starting base price of around $US50,000, with premiums for various features over time.

The Cybertruck will face competition not only from popular EV trucks like the Ford F-150 Lightning and GM Hummer EV but also from the conventionally powered pickups led by Ford’s market-topping F-150 series, which sold 653,957 units in 2022, down from 726,004 in 2021.

Evercore ISI analyst Chris McNally estimated 2024 sales at 78,000 units, increasing to 165,000 in 2025.

However, reports in October and earlier this month suggest that demand for EVs in the US is easing, particularly for very expensive truck EVs like the Lightning. Despite price cuts of around $US10,000, Ford cut a shift from its factory making the EV trucks, and price cuts are available from dealers.

Ahead of its launch in April 2022, approximately 200,000 orders were taken for the F-150 Lightning, leading Ford to increase its planned annual production capacity from 40,000 examples to 80,000. Ford had plans to boost production up to a 150,000 annual rate by the middle of this year, or 12,500 units a month. However, just 3,503 F-150 Lightnings were sold in the US in the September quarter, which does not bode well for the Cybertruck’s reception.

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