Elon Musk overshadows his own Cybertruck rollout

The X owner's latest bizarre public appearance and incendiary comments threaten to derail the 'biggest product launch of anything by far on Earth this year'

Elon Musk speaks onstage during The New York Times Dealbook Summit 2023 at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 29, 2023
(Image credit: Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for The New York Times)

To hear Tesla owner Elon Musk tell it, Thursday's long-awaited debut of his much-hyped Cybertruck will be the "biggest product launch of anything by far on Earth this year." And in a sense, he may be right; after years of delays, grandiose proclamations, and attention-grabbing marketing stunts, the fact that his electric vehicle company's first foray into consumer trucking is finally rolling off the line and onto driveways today is indeed a major event. Musk's prediction, however, made during a lengthy interview Wednesday evening with Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook conference, was largely overshadowed by his other comments that night. Speaking at times in grandiose, planetary terms, Musk spent much of the event relitigating various personal grievances, telling advertisers anxious about spending money on his X, formerly Twitter, platform to "go f--k yourselves," and at one point insisting that "Jonathan, the only reason I’m here is because you’re a friend" ("...I'm Andrew" a nonplussed Ross Sorkin responded). 

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Bombastic Cybertruck prediction notwithstanding, Musk seemed inherently to understand how much his personal brand and behavior have influenced the public perception of his various companies. Ultimately, he explained to Ross Sorkin, it comes down to a question of "whether you hate me, like me or are indifferent, do you want the best car or not the best car?" It's a simple premise but, with so much riding on today's Cybertruck debut, will it actually hold? Or has Musk's latest spate of outrageous behavior, culminating with last night's eruption, thrown a wet blanket on the launch of a product which, by his own admission, "dug [a] grave" for his beloved car company? 

Raising stakes, lowering expectations

Musk's interview Wednesday was "bizarre," and "long-winded," touching on "everything but the Cybertruck," Business Insider reported, noting that his sales prediction was "more or less it for his thoughts on the electric pickup truck." People would "never guess" Musk was just hours away from Tesla's "biggest product launch in four years."

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Thursday's rollout comes "after CEO Elon Musk tempered investor expectations" for a product he'd previously bragged would "change the look of the roads," according to Reuters. For Tesla, the Cybertruck is "critical to its reputation as a maker of innovative vehicles" amid a growing marketplace, even as "Musk captured media attention on a different subject" during his interview. During a Q3 earnings call with investors last month, Musk had admitted that the Cybertruck would take "a year to 18 months" before it was a "significant positive cash flow contributor" for Tesla. 

All this comes as Tesla is "struggling or at least managing demand" for cars that have been on the market for years, and have the "potential for sort of fatigue" from buyers, Bloomberg's "Elon Inc." podcast host Max Chafkin explained. That, coupled with Musk's habit of saying "stuff that is edgy or borderline racist" is "arguably harming demand for these cars." At the same time, the popularity of trucks in the U.S. makes Cybertruck a "huge opportunity" for Tesla, and Musk's expectation-managing is in part to keep investors on board for something that's not "going to happen in the next year."

'Tesla got a lot less sexy'

Cybertruck opinions vary from an "ugly and useless toy made by a narcissist" to a "visionary master stroke" that will "usher in a new age of electric design," David Ferris wrote for Politico's E&E News. While the truck is genuinely "unlike anything else on the road," Musk himself is "currently at a pinnacle of controversy, even for him." The combination of these two factors is "scrambling the debate about trucks, vehicle design and Tesla" as a whole.

Even some previous Tesla enthusiasts have soured on the crown jewel of Musk's tech empire, as the CEO's behavior continues to deteriorate. "Tesla got a lot less sexy" after Musk started making "offensive statements," California solar power executive Daniel Shugar wrote in a blog post seen by E&E. Despite still enjoying Tesla's other "great cars" he continued, "I won't be buying any more." 

In spite of Tesla's market dominance in the U.S., it's China's BYD company that seems "poised to eat the world's lunch on cheap EVs," The Prospect's Ryan Cooper wrote. Ultimately "megalomaniac, conspiracy-brained billionaires are not the key to a zero-carbon transportation future."

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