/ @ade3
December 5, 2020

Cybertruck vs. The Zombie Mobile

4 Mental Traps to Avoid When Evaluating the Design of Tesla’s Truck

As the Cybertruck continues to blow up the internet, occasionally my Zombie Mobile story gets referenced. If you add the Cybertruck to my matrix of crossover vehicles you could come to the conclusion that the Cybertruck is the vehicle we have been asking for. Defenders of the Cybertruck’s design point at criticism of crossovers and say, “You can’t criticize the uniformity of car design and then complain when something breaks the mold.” Allow me to frame the situation differently.

The premise of my upcoming book, User Zero is that humans often lack the skills to evaluate our tools. Instead of understanding what makes one thing good and another thing bad, we resort to gut reactions based on style and brand preference. We find ourselves in situations where the quality of objects is invisible. Conversations inevitably devolve into, “If you hate/love the Cybertruck, you are a Nazi.” Is it possible to evaluate the design of the Cybertruck without resorting to tribal warfare? Here are four mental traps that you can avoid as you evaluate the Cybertruck’s design.

1. Attractiveness Bias

Is the Cybertruck Ugly? To measure the beauty of the Cybertruck you need to compare it to other beautiful objects. The fans of the Cybertruck’s aesthetic seem to be responding to its cues of the futuristic landscape we predicted in the 80s. The Cybertruck also has an early video game feel to it with its flat vector shapes and sharp angles. The spray-paint style of the Cybertruck logo, the black leather jackets of the models on stage, and the neon beams shooting from the headlights are not accidental design choices. These are deeply nostalgic triggers that will create an instant bond with anyone who is sympathetic to them. Attractiveness is always less about beauty than it is about the things the object reminds us of.

When the Prius first went into production the aesthetic backlash was similar to what the Cybertruck is enduring. Back then, the consensus seemed to be that the Prius was ugly, angular, devoid of the familiar shapes of typical cars of that era. After years of burn-in, our eyes have adjusted to the Prius, the design that once offended us blends into the background. It is easy to forget our initial negative reactions to new designs.

Like the Prius, truck design is deeply burned-in to our preferences. Nobody was asking if trucks were ugly prior to the Cybertruck. It is only after our mental boxes have been shaken that the design of a truck becomes visible. Perhaps the best thing about the Cybertruck’s unorthodox design will be the breaking of the truck illusion and we can now look at truck design with fresh eyes.

2. Aesthetic-Usability Effect

In theory, the main selling point of a truck is utility. While the truck accessory market hints otherwise, most self-respecting truck owners will describe their vehicle as a work horse. Can the Cybertruck do the job? On paper, the answer seems to be yes. Humans don’t evaluate utility based on specs, however.

When confronted with two objects that do the same job, the more aesthetically pleasing object will be perceived as being easier to use. This is called the aesthetic-usability effect. If half the world sees the Cybertruck as ugly and the other half sees it as appealing, the aesthetic-usability effect will be different for each audience. That perceived utility of the Cybertruck will be a reflection of how visually appealing people perceive it to be.

If the Cybertruck is perceived as less usable than traditional trucks (whether right or wrong) it may struggle to be adopted. On the other hand, the reason people actually buy trucks may be less about utility than owners claim. Owning a truck says something about your personality. It is an identity accessory. If your identity benefits from adding a Tesla sticker to your bumper, the Cybertruck’s actual utility might not matter.

3. Show Car Bias

The vehicle that ships in 2021 will be different than the Cybertruck we saw on stage. Tesla will be redesigning more than the shatter-prone glass. Every angle of the Cybertruck will be scrutinized as the dreamers hand their baby over to the engineers who will be tasked with figuring out how to turn the show car into a production vehicle. Creating a single spectacular product intended to make a splash on stage is a different skill set than mass-production. The question is how different will the final Cybertruck be from the stage version.

Will the design be diluted by budgets, committees, focus groups, and the scrutiny of timid engineers? I wouldn’t bet against the bean counters. On the other hand, unlike other show cars, the Cybertruck may have more pressure than normal to ship what we saw on stage. We expect more from Tesla. If the production version of the Cybertruck looks like a crossover, Tesla’s reputation will be damaged significantly. If they can manage to ship something close to the vehicle that has captured our imagination, they will have earned even more praise from Tesla fans.

4. Aerodynamic Blindness

Is the Cybertruck’s design Aerodynamic? Aerodynamics is not generally a priority for trucks, although they do tend to get driven like race cars. Tesla cares about aerodynamic performance, however. The Tesla Model 3 tops the list of most aerodynamic vehicles with a drag coefficient of 0.23. Is the Cybertruck’s design a result of aerodynamic fine tuning or a stylistic choice?

We often mistake aerodynamic style for aerodynamic perfomance. Streamlining is not the same as aerodynamic design. Just because something looks like it can cut through the air with ease doesn’t mean that it will perform well in a wind tunnel. This unexpected difference between our instinct and reality is aerodynamic blindness.

The irony of the crossover’s bulbous shape is that it isn’t as aerodynamic as you might predict. The drag coefficient of crossovers is below average. For example, my 2010 Subaru Forester has a drag coefficient of 0.38 which is worse than a Ram Pickup (0.35).

Even the most streamlined modern cars struggle to match the efficiency of the 1935 Tatra T77A which had a drag coefficient of 0.21. The Cybertruck’s aesthetic could not be more different than the Tatra as you can see below. Then again, it can be misleading to measure aerodynamics on looks alone.

Designers pay lip service to aerodynamics, but vehicle aesthetics are less shaped by wind tunnels than by style decisions. We will have to wait to see how the boxy Cybertruck performs in the wind tunnel, but my guess is that the shape of the truck is driven more by style than performance.

As we evaluate Tesla’s Cybertruck, we can benefit from questioning our aesthetic reactions. We are all susceptible to attractiveness bias and emotional triggers. We should remember that our perceptions about usability and utility can be swayed by aesthetics. We can hedge our opinions knowing that the production model will be different from the show car. We can decouple ideas of streamlining and aerodynamics. Keep an eye out for these flaws in other people’s thinking as you navigate through the Cybertruck controversy as well as whatever internet sensation comes next.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed my Cybertruck analysis then you are the type of person who will want to read User Zero. Sign up for my mailing list so you can be first in line  when the book launches. Stay creative.


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