Episode 124: Tesla Cybertrash with Ed Niedermeyer


Sarah Goodyear: It’s not about functionality. It’s not about novelty. It’s not about anything except this idea that you’re affiliating yourself with the power of this man.

Aaron Naparstek: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, here with my co hosts, Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear.

Doug Gordon: Hello.

Sarah: Hey there.

Aaron: What’s up? How’s it going?

Doug: It goes.

Sarah: It’s going. I’m a little apprehensive about what’s coming.

Aaron: [laughs]

Doug: What are we talking about? I have no idea.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: I’m afraid we need to talk about Elon Musk again.

Doug: All right, I’m out of here. Bye. No!

Sarah: Stop. Make it stop.

Aaron: No, we have to. We have to. I’m not sure if you guys heard about this, but last November, Elon Musk and his company Tesla, launched a new product called the Cybertruck.

Sarah: [laughs] Oh, really?

Doug: Haven’t heard of it.

Sarah: You don’t say?

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: People have been waiting months for us to talk about the Cybertruck, and the time has come.

Doug: This is good. You’re gonna get the deeper dive, the War on Cars dive on the Cybertruck.

Aaron: I consider this the real launch event for the Cybertruck.

Doug: [laughs] Are we going to break any glass or throw things against the side of the studio that we’re in right now?

Aaron: That’s a great idea, Doug. We should go outside and just start throwing rocks at car windows.

Sarah: Yeah. I have a baseball bat and an AK 47. I’m ready for this.

Sarah: Hey there. I’ve been riding and walking around with a new bag. It’s from a company called Sheyd Bags. On the bike, it’s a double pannier bag that clips onto my rack easily and quickly. Then when I take it off, it zips up and converts into a backpack. It’s made from sturdy, water-resistant canvas, and has so many pockets and sleeves where I can stash everything from my laptop to my wallet to my water bottle. And the zippers? They’re smooth as silk! Another cool thing is that Sheyd Bags is a small, woman-owned business based in Huntington Beach, California. And did I mention the pockets? I love pockets! You can check out the double bike pannier backpack by going to SheydBags.com/waroncars. That’s S-H-E-Y-D-bags.com/waroncars.

Aaron: As you’ve probably heard, Elon Musk’s gigantic, stainless steel Blade Runner-inspired electric car-truck has launched. It has appeared on city streets, and it unfortunately appears to be wildly popular. Well over two million pre-orders have come in, so people have actually deposited $250 apiece, put in their order for their Cybertruck. It is allegedly sold out through 2027 if Tesla can actually produce that many Cybertrucks, which is a big if. In fact, the two million orders might be a big if, so we’ll talk about that. It’s possible that you’ve seen a Cybertruck on the street, and if you haven’t yet, you’ve almost certainly seen a Cybertruck on your computer screen because there have been so many social media posts showing Cybertrucks failing in spectacular ways. What are your favorites, your favorite Cybertruck fails?

Doug: My favorite? I think there’s one showing it trying to go up, maybe it’s a snowy hill or something, and it eventually has to be rescued by a Ford. Is it an F-150 or an F-250?

Aaron: A 250 diesel truck. I looked it up.

Doug: Okay. My only reaction to that was, “Well, Ford is good now.”

Sarah: I think the one where somebody drove it onto the beach and down to, like, the edge of the water, and then the people had to push it off of the sand, because it just turned into a brick down there.

Aaron: My favorite was a Phoenix, Arizona, man tweeted that his Cybertruck steering and brakes suffered quote, “catastrophe failure” in the middle of a road trip with his wife and toddler. But he still loves his Tesla Cybertruck. He started the tweet with “Love Tesla, but my Cybertruck failed in the middle of the highway.” It just apparently bricked while driving.

Sarah: I mean, what was interesting about that one is it seemed like first of all, if the steering and brakes failed, then why didn’t he crash? Like, it really seems like it should have been a very terrible event. Was he exaggerating what happened in order to get Tesla to give him free repair?

Aaron: You know, I think it’s like with all things Tesla and Elon, you don’t quite know.

Sarah: You don’t know. That’s the problem.

Aaron: You really don’t know.

Doug: I just want to say that “Catastrophe Failure” is my new improv group name.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: [laughs] Solid. All right, so in this episode, we want to cover some of that territory, of course, and revel in the spectacular fails of the Cybertruck. But what we also really want to try to do here is get under the hood—or get into the frunk, as it were—and focus on the Cybertruck as car culture. What is the Cybertruck, really? Why is it so popular? And what does the Cybertruck say about who we are and where we are headed as a people?

Doug: Yeah, you can tell we’re a little punchy because I feel like we want to just dunk on this thing. But the more important thing, really, is the cultural piece of this and what it says. Nothing good about where we’re going.

Sarah: Yes, we need to have a little gravitas, guys.

Aaron: Well, and so to bring the gravitas, and to help us read and interpret the cultural text that is the Cybertruck, we have invited our friend, journalist Ed Niedermeyer, back to The War on Cars. You may remember Ed from episode 88 of the podcast. We titled that one “Tesla is a Fraud with Ed Niedermeyer.” Ed has been an automotive journalist since 2008. He’s been investigating and reporting on Tesla and Musk for really about as long as anybody, and with a far more critical and skeptical eye than just about all of his peers. Ed cohosts The Autonocast podcast, and is the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. Ed Niedermeyer, welcome to The War on Cars.

Ed Niedermeyer: Hey, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be back. Always a pleasure to chat with you all.

Doug: We’re happy to have you.

Sarah: Yeah. Someone to help us try to get to the facts.

Aaron: Ed, you’re working on a new book that is somewhat Tesla-related.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yes, I am. I’m still in the sort of early phases of that, but I think the story of autopilot and full self-driving is a complex and interesting one. I kind of feel an obligation to be the one to tell it, so I am working on that right now. Yeah.

Aaron: Okay, so I thought the best way to start the discussion of the Cybertruck would be to just go right back into the launch event on November 30, 2023, that took place at the so-called Gigafactory in Texas. The launch was widely hailed by critics as underwhelming. But this was the big sales pitch. This was—you know, Elon Musk had the world’s attention, and these were the things that he wanted us to know about the Cybertruck. So let’s give it a quick listen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: It’s very rare that a product comes along that is seemingly impossible, that people said was impossible, that experts said was impossible. And this is one of those times. We have a car here that experts said was impossible, that experts said would never be made.]

Doug: Well, he’s no Steve Jobs, that’s for sure. I mean, you know, I think he’s trying to do that thing where he’s launching—like, this is the iPhone, essentially. And his showmanship is just bad. It’s terrible. There’s also a real Trump quality to it. Like, who are these experts? Who are these people who said that this could never be done? What is actually so impossible about building a car out of stainless steel?

Aaron: [laughs]

Doug: The DeLorean did that. You know, that existed before. There isn’t—what’s impossible about this? And who said that?

Sarah: Yeah, that’s literally my question is like, nobody said …

Doug: Nobody said you could make a car this terrible. That’s impossible.

Sarah: [laughs]

Ed Niedermeyer: Nobody really knew enough about it to say that it was impossible, you know? That was sort of the thing. It was this sort of secretive thing. You saw there was some sort of wild talk and, like, you know, images and eventually a rolling prototype, but they didn’t announce the price or the range or anything until the very last minute. So the idea that we understood the Cybertruck, what it actually was in a way that was critiqueable, is itself not true. But Elon has done this going back to, you know, rockets. Everyone said he couldn’t land rockets. No one actually said that. I’ve never been able to find any expert who wrote some big op-ed way back in the day saying SpaceX couldn’t land rockets. It’s always been part of his mythmaking is that there are people out there doubting him, and that he proves them wrong.

Sarah: So you’re not one of the naysaying experts who said this is impossible?

Ed Niedermeyer: Well, that’s the thing, is I am actually probably exactly the kind of person he’s referring to. And I’m saying I couldn’t really critique the Cybertruck. I couldn’t say it was impossible because we simply didn’t know anything about it besides sort of some talking points that Musk had put out there.

Doug: That’s responsible journalism right there.

Sarah: There you go.

Aaron: Let’s let Elon keep going here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: I think it’s our best product. I think it’s the most unique thing on the road. And finally, the future will look like the future. [audience cheers] So what we’re aiming for here is something that has—that’s more truck than truck. Okay. [laughs] Thanks, bro. That was literally my brother there. [laughs] So what we have here is something that is a better truck than a truck, while also being a better sports car than a sports car in the same package. So …]

Aaron: So …

Sarah: It’s a future that is more future than the future.

Aaron: [laughs]

Doug: The future is gonna look like the future. Yeah. It’s a floor cleaner and a dessert topping. Do you remember that old SNL sketch?

Aaron: It’s a Swiss army knife.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: It’s got everything in it.

Sarah: But the thing of, like, the future looks like the future, the car is the car, the truck is the truck, it’s got a Zen quality. I’m gonna give him that.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: I’m curious about the evil laughter.

Sarah: Whose laugh was that? Is that his laugh?

Aaron: So this is gonna come up a few times in this episode. There is an Elon Musk evil laugh. I don’t know, is that a new affect, Ed, or was the evil laugh always there?

Ed Niedermeyer: It is definitely something that’s been coming on. You know, it’s shocking when you go to write a book or do a long-term project, you go back and you look at, you know—and you can watch him evolve as a human being over time. And I think that’s one of the frustrations I have with, like, the new biography of him, is it presents him as, like, being formed as a child, and that’s just sort of who he is. And really, if you look at him over time, he has changed a lot over the last, say, 10 years. And my feeling is that Tesla is really what’s changed him, and that’s why I think it’s really important to understand Tesla and what’s going on there.

Sarah: I think it might be more of a devolution than an evolution, but yeah, okay.

Aaron: All right, let’s keep going here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: So we actually had to come up with a special, ultra-strong, Tesla-designed steel alloy. We needed something that you could actually manufacture that would have basically no corrosion, but you could still make it in volume. Oh, and I should say also the—because of the steel exoskeleton, it actually has more torsional rigidity than a sports car. It has more torsional stiffness than a McLaren P1. So that’s very—that’s a big deal. Now you may remember …]

Aaron: Okay, so it has more torsional. It’s very rigid. It’s very stiff. It’s rigid and stiff and strong.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah, one of the things if you talk to people who work with Elon, they tell you that he really—his leadership is really focused on superlatives. And what’s fascinating is sometimes the superlative doesn’t matter. Who cares about torsional rigidity? Like, who’s out there, you know, in the car market saying, “Well, you know, I want to buy a truck, but just the torsional rigidity on the models available on the market today just do not meet my—” you know, nobody thinks like that. But that’s exactly how he leads Tesla is he sort of latches onto what is a superlative we can accomplish, and then he goes out and accomplishes it, whether or not it’s relevant to anybody else’s life. It’s like the superlative is the value in and of itself.

Doug: I want to give him credit because he mentions that it has an exoskeleton, and we at The War on Cars and others often say that cars essentially exist as an exoskeleton for the people inside them, that they are an extension of their bodies. That’s why they get so upset if you so much as lay a hand on a car. You know, if you’re riding your bike and you slap the hood, it’s like you’ve hit them. So accidentally, Elon Musk has joined the war on cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: And then things like rollover. Because the center of gravity is so low, it doesn’t roll over. [audience cheers] And if you’re having an argument with another car, you will win. [audience laughs]]

Aaron: Okay? So that kind of gets us into the question of the safety of the Cybertruck and, you know, if you’re ever in an argument with another car, you will win.

Doug: An argument with another car.

Aaron: Right.

Sarah: Yeah. It’s clearly positioning the vehicle as a weapon to be used in an argument, right? Like, it’s weaponizing this truck.

Aaron: But it feels like it’s very overtly saying, like, it’s a kind of a physical manifestation of the troll in the message boards. Like, you will win the argument on the boards, on Twitter and 4Chan. That’s his kind of framework for life out there on the roads or something.

Doug: I mean, I often say that cars are the internet comment section of the real world, and here we have …

Aaron: You and Elon seem to be on the same page there.

Doug: That is merging right there in his sentence. Yep.

Ed Niedermeyer: He’s saying the quiet part out loud, too, right? Which is, you know, the industry is entirely aligned around occupant safety, right? Like, it’s entirely about the occupant, and it’s just deeply embedded and implicit in so many things about vehicles and cars, but here he is finally at least just sort of saying it out loud and kind of just giving voice to what everyone else has just been sort of implicitly agreeing about.

Aaron: So at this point in the launch event, Musk puts on a video, and it shows some Tesla employees out in the desert firing a machine gun at the exterior of the Cybertruck.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tesla employee: We’ve already tested shopping carts and we’ve tested door dings. Today, we’re gonna get a chance to test the actual bullet performance. So we’ve got a couple guns here to go through, starting with a nine millimeter Glock shotgun, double-ought buck, and, of course, tommy gun .45 caliber. So we’ll get all these through tested today, and we’ll see the results.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tesla employee: Range is hot! [machine gun firing] Clear.]

Aaron: This is apparently a critical feature of the Cybertruck, and it’s come up in a lot of the media, and of course, here at the big launch event. We’ll let Musk describe why this is so important.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: If Al Capone showed up with a tommy gun and emptied the entire magazine into the car door, you would still be alive. So, you know, instead, people say, like, “Well, why’d you make it bulletproof?” I’m like, “Why not?” [audience laughs] “How tough is your truck?” Because the other trucks, the bullets go through both sides. You just never know. I mean, sometimes you get these, like, late civilization vibes. [audience laughs] You know, you never know when—the apocalypse could come along at any moment. And here at Tesla, we have the finest in apocalypse technology.]

Aaron: I get a Joe Biden ad immediately after that, by the way, on YouTube.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: But we won’t play that.

Sarah: Yeah, I am getting an apocalypse vibe, Elon, from you. [laughs]

Aaron: He brings about the apocalypse, and then he sells us the products we need to survive it.

Sarah: Exactly. It’s horizontal integration? I don’t know.

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, he’s very socially inept in a lot of ways, but he has this weird feel for American culture. And, you know, I think there is a lot of overlap between car guys and gun guys. You know, what he is also really good at doing is taking something that’s quite complex—it’s a very complex engineering problem to make a vehicle safe. That’s really hard to explain to the public, but he is able to sort of explain safety in this way that people viscerally get, but that also fascinatingly taps into these really deep sort of cultural roots of guns and violence and these other sort of simmering things in American culture. And it’s actually—it’s brilliant.

Sarah: I have to say that, realistically, apocalypse technology is probably more along the lines of, like, a knife, a rope, a shovel and a bicycle.

Doug: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, like, the Cybertruck is not gonna really help you if things go to shit. A bicycle will.

Sarah: Yeah. But, like, it’s gonna be a lot more basic than that in the apocalypse, Elon. I hate to tell you.

Aaron: I’m gonna be really valuable in the apocalypse because I’m just stockpiling bicycle chain oil, a lot of, like, lube for bicycle chains. Everybody’s gonna need me.

Doug: You know, but I think, to Ed’s point, I feel like this is the problem with our politics in general, right? Like, you see with the asylum seeker crisis that’s happening now or the Southern border stuff of, like, trying to explain to people how we keep our country safe, and how immigration is actually helpful in many ways to our future and to the economy and all kinds of stuff is really complicated. But let’s put up a big fence that you can’t penetrate! That’s really easy for people to understand. And now that is dominating our politics, and the more nuanced, squishy way of having to describe safety is just “Suck it loser. I don’t want to listen to that.”

Ed Niedermeyer: And this is also—right? This is like an outgrowth of how internet discourse happens, where it’s like that simple answer is just—it resonates with people. And again, the smart people end up writing these long walls of text, trying to get into the nuances, and the people who are trolling and blunt and just sort of put things out on front street in the most simple, crude kind of ways, oftentimes are able to connect with more people.

Aaron: I have two thoughts on it. One, there’s a way in which I feel like he’s selling the Cybertruck as the ultimate car in the way that we talk about cars as this cocoon, as this bubble of private space that rolls through the public realm and keeps the driver safe and insulated, right? And so the Cybertruck is the ultimate one of these. You know, it’s so safe that they can—Al Capone can come and shoot a tommy gun at you.

Doug: Which is a normal occurrence when you’re shopping at Whole Foods, by the way.

Sarah: Such a strange, archaic example. I mean, that was very interesting to me that he picks this sort of early 20th century example of …

Doug: But I think, you know, if you listen to the music in that clip, there was also a little, like, Terminator, kind of dun dun dun dun dun in the background.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: And I think that’s sort of Elon Musk’s entire experience of the world, especially now, is through social media, is through what he sees on his screen. He’s not talking to any real people. He’s not probably talking to these engineers down at the crash lab of, like, “Well, how do you build a crumple zone?” Or that kind of stuff. And he’s certainly not, like, running to the grocery store and, like, getting into a fender bender with somebody. So I think that it’s just that filter.

Aaron: And you mentioned Terminator, and I think that kind of gets into the aesthetics of this whole thing, which is really interesting to me. But it’s like there’s a vibe of Terminator, there’s a vibe of Robocop. There’s a vibe of Blade Runner. So we’re really kind of harkening back to this 1980s-ish version of the future.

Doug: Which to me, is very similar—again, I’m just gonna keep bringing this up—to Trump, which is that I think Trump is fixed in a, like, 1987 version of New York City, where, like, crime is really high, men are on top, you the sort of masters of the universe Bonfire of the Vanities sort of way of looking at New York City. And I think Musk, his pop culture references are all basically like The Untouchables, Terminator. Like, stuff that came out in the ’80s. And he is just another one of these sort of like middle-aged white dudes who’s not listening to younger people, doesn’t know where the culture is actually going, and sees it all as very scary, right? It’s like, “Brown people are gonna come for you in your car,” or something like that. So I think there’s that similarity as well.

Ed Niedermeyer: And there’s this other piece that makes him similar to Trump that I think is rooted in exactly what you’re talking about, which is that, you know, as this sort of rising tide of awareness around—and you can look at, you know, any number of issues, but let’s take cars, right? Because this podcast reflects—and this popularity reflects this rising, you know, awareness that, hey, like, cars have some real downsides and some real issues. And instead of engaging in that conversation, the response is to own it, is to say, “You’re right, cars are dangerous. My safety does trade off with yours.” And again, it’s the saying the quiet part out loud, and it’s like owning the critique and saying, “Yes, I’m not going to refute your critique of what vehicles are and what they’re becoming. Instead, I’m going to own it and make the most extreme version of that. Now what, you know, sort of liberal snowflake kind of a thing?” And I think that’s a direct parallel between sort of Trump’s politics and Elon’s product cultural stew that he’s cooking up.

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Aaron: So the Cybertruck has launched—we just heard the launch event. And it’s actually starting to appear on city streets, on highways. You’re starting to see pictures of it popping up. We just saw an image of one crashed into the iconic sign at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Did you guys see that one?

Sarah: I missed that.

Doug: I did see that flip by on my social media feed. Yeah.

Sarah: Is that real?

Aaron: Yeah, it was real.

Ed Niedermeyer: I actually already bought a piece of art inspired by it.

Aaron: Did you really?

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah. It’s a linen cut woodblock-style print. It’s beautiful.

Sarah: Wow, that’s amazing. I will say that, like, that kind of thing, especially in today’s AI world, like, some of this stuff, like, is this real? Like, just that is my first question about every time I see a Cybertruck doing anything good or bad, I’m like, “Is this real?” Like, I’m perpetually being thrust into this unreality by …

Aaron: You’re asking the right questions.

Sarah: [laughs] Okay. All right. But that was real. It really crashed into the sign?

Doug: My favorite was the picture of someone who had a bicycle in the bed, and the bicycle didn’t fit. Like, the back wheel was hanging out of the back of the truck. And it doesn’t even look like the design of the back of the truck looks like you could put a traditional bicycle rack on it in any way. So it just—like you said, it doesn’t even work at the thing that he says it’s supposed to be better at doing than any other vehicle.

Aaron: I mean, what about that, Ed? Is the Cybertruck good at being a truck?

Ed Niedermeyer: No. I mean, no! Like, we heard these clips of Elon talking about the novelty of this truck. It’s like nothing else. It’s so new. People said it couldn’t be done. You know, this is what Elon brings to the auto industry that does resonate with a lot of people, is this sense of that there are new frontiers to explore. Because the reality is that the auto industry is a century old, everyone benchmarks each other. It’s very, very competitive. It’s capital intensive and low margin. It’s easy to go out of business. You know, we’ve gone from a thousand American automakers down to—depending on how you’d even define American automaker today—less than a handful. Trucks look a certain way and are a certain way for good reason. They’ve been refined by evolution, and that creates good products.

Ed Niedermeyer: But good products are easy to take for granted. And then when someone comes along and says, “Ah, these are all just the same. What about something new and exciting?” As capitalists and consumers, we’re very conditioned to be like, “Oh, that must be a good thing.” Novelty must be good. And I think that this is the story of Tesla in a lot of ways, is Musk is very good at seducing people with novelty. But ultimately, first impressions—and this is true for investors, and this is true for owners of the vehicles—the first impressions are great. The problems all show up over the longer tail of the ownership experience, of the trajectory of the company. And I think this is sort of the last gasp to really sort of show something that is radically novel and different in a way that even previous Tesla models weren’t.

Doug: Isn’t this exactly what’s happening with the tunnels in Vegas, the Boring Company’s project, right? There was this novelty aspect at the beginning. We have an episode where we dunked on it where, like, so you’ve basically taken underground tunnels, a thing that exists, and put cars in them, a thing that exists, and have said that this is public transit, a thing that exists. But you’ve made a much worse version of all of those things. And now we’re seeing a couple years later after that all began that, like, dangerous fluids are leaking in the tunnel, people are being exposed to all sorts of hazardous materials. God forbid there’s a fire in there. Like you said, all of these things, like, the, “Ooh, shiny moment!” has passed, and now the reality has set in.

Sarah: But it seems like it’s not even just that he’s selling novelty, right? Like, I think that a lot of these people who are buying that maybe realize, okay, this is not the most innovative thing that’s ever happened, but it’s really the cult of personality that he’s selling. And that’s the other similarity to Trump in that the substance of it really doesn’t matter at all to the fans. Like, the guy who’s like, “Oh, my whole system just failed with my family, but I still love Tesla! I still love Tesla!” It’s not about functionality, it’s not about novelty. It’s not about anything except this idea that you’re affiliating yourself with the power of this man.

Aaron: So let’s get into that a little bit, because in preparation for this episode, I did spend quite a bit of time in the cyberstuck Cybertruck subreddits, and …

Doug: I’m so sorry for the algorithm that you must be subject to now.

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah.

Aaron: I’m getting some pretty terrible ads on Instagram now. Yes. So one of the things that comes up is, like, there are a huge number of these Cybertruck kind of fanboy accounts on YouTube. And a lot of them are—they’re clearly fans, and they went out and they got the Cybertruck early. But then this guy I’ll play you right now, he posted a video called “Everything Wrong With My Cybertruck.”

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: It’s a list. As you may have noticed, the driver door would not open a full 90 degrees. I also had to get my front left mud flap replaced. There’s also a rattle and squeak coming from the top of the vehicle. Another weird thing that was happening was the driver’s seat was rubbing up against the center console. I also have to replace both of my rocker panels. Now a big one I noticed is whenever I closed my driver front door, it made a terrible noise. It sounded like something was very broken with the car. And honestly, it’s kind of embarrassing, especially since so many people look at this car. And every time I get out of the car …]

Aaron: Okay, so you guys get the idea. There’s some issues with build quality here.

Sarah: I feel like this is me, like, still being a Mets fan after all these years.

Aaron: [laughs] A little bit like that.

Sarah: No matter how, like, the team just doesn’t function, it’s never gonna win. I’m still like, “Naw, naw, I still love the Mets!”

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: But so on a deeper level, though, like, what is going on here? You know, is this just sort of like your nerdy-but-normal tech early adopter guy? Is this a person who wants to be part of a Cybertruck community, and he’s sort of, like, testing the product? Or is this just like a straight-up cult?

Doug: Yes, that’s the answer.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah, it’s all that and more. So the story of Tesla is always the story of perception and reality. The fascinating question about this all is: how does this happen? How does a perception and reality, like, how do they get so separate? And I think this encapsulates, like, one of the key things that Tesla’s been able to do.

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, we live in an attention economy, and there’s no such thing as bad attention. And I think what people have learned and what Musk has encouraged, and he’s cultivated this community of people who create content about Tesla because A) people are interested in it, right? It’s electric cars are interesting, technology is interesting, Elon Musk is interesting to people. So all these things sort of funnel people towards Tesla content.

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, you see people who have YouTube presences and are building their presences there who are not really like car people, but they’ll get a Tesla and do Tesla-related content because it’s something that gets people’s attention.

Ed Niedermeyer: You also have the stock part of it. You know, back in the day, you had a referral sales program, but now I think it’s baked into the internet that, like, Tesla content and Elon Musk content is just sort of a genre that’s out there. You see all this going back years. The “I love my Tesla, but …” has been a cliche among Tesla critics since 2018 or something like that. Like, this is a really long-running phenomenon. What’s amazing about it is that the incentives are still there to make this content and to ultimately say—even if the whole thing is just about why it sucks and why it would actually be terrible in an apocalypse, because it just wouldn’t work—it would stop working in a matter of days. It undermines the core marketing thing, but it still, it generates attention. And today, what’s more important than that? It’s all about the attention, whether it’s good or bad.

Sarah: I have a question, Ed: are any of these super fans women?

Aaron: I will say I saw none of them on the YouTubes.

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, Tesla in general is very much a male—it’s internally male-dominated, and its customer base—there’s been some research into this—it is overwhelmingly more white and male than any other automaker by a considerable amount. So this is a very masculine thing. I think in those situations, there is always that sort of niche to be like, “Oh, I’m the Tesla girl.” And that niche kind of gets filled here and there, but it is fundamentally very much a male phenomenon.

Sarah: Yeah, because that goes back to my feeling that this is really not about the vehicles. It’s about proximity to a certain kind of male power, and it’s about identifying with that and envying it and yearning for it and appropriating it, and thinking that shooting at your Cybertruck is gonna show that you’re just as much of a master of your own universe as Elon is of the whole universe. But yeah, it’s this particular bro-y kind of “I’m gonna ally myself with the meanest and most toxic man in the room,” because that’s the guy that gets things that he wants, and that’s the guy that can marry all these women and then dispose of them, and have children that he names weird things and all the money in the world, and he gets to go live on Mars at the end, you know?

Aaron: [laughs]

Sarah: I don’t know. I just can’t help …

Aaron: That’s the new American dream, apparently. 

Ed Niedermeyer: So you mentioned that, you know, it’s about proximity to power. And I think you’re right. And I think that the sort of the substrate that this masculine element that we’ve been discussing kind of grows out of is actually it’s the tech sector and the power of the tech sector. And I think that’s ultimately the power that everyone is trying to get up close to.

Ed Niedermeyer: And I think I said this the first time I was on this show that that’s sort of fundamentally what Elon Musk has done that the traditional auto industry, they should have done it, and they blew it, which is identifying that there’s this large and growing upper middle class to upper class cohort of people who are, like, homo technicus or whatever. You know what I mean? They see themselves as technology people. And there was no premium car, you know, where culture—cars are such an important part of representation of our material culture, there wasn’t a car that spoke to this new power. And Tesla was the first company that really did that.

Ed Niedermeyer: And that is, to me, the foundation of Tesla’s success is that it gives you this way to drape yourself in the power and status of technology. Now I think the masculine aspect and this sort of incel culture or whatever, that’s a reflection of the culture within Silicon Valley. And I think that Elon Musk is emerging as Silicon Valley’s id. Then he marries that to these existing sort of masculine tropes and things that exist around cars and trucks. And so again, he’s actually quite masterfully pulling together these cultural threads that are kind of quite disparate, but he’s able to sort of bring them together and sort of brand the coming together of them. And for certain people, that just drives them crazy. They love that stuff.

Aaron: That kind of gets us right into Elon himself as the text we’re really examining here more than the truck, perhaps. And since Ed last appeared on the podcast—so I recorded with Ed in the spring of 2022, and since that time, Elon Musk purchased Twitter and basically destroyed what had kind of in some ways been like the global town square, you know, the place where you could build a weird little brand like The War on Cars, and where various smaller players could have their voices heard for better or sometimes worse. Musk has become increasingly clear about his very right wing libertarian views. It’s also become clear to the rest of us how powerful he actually is. SpaceX is the launch vehicle for entire nation states, and Starlink is a key player in the Ukraine-Russia war.

Aaron: And then on top of that, Musk has sort of embraced this. He’s become a much more overt political player. He visits the border of Mexico and the United States to take a look at the immigration crisis in person, as if he were a presidential candidate or a US Senator. So who is this increasingly powerful figure? We got a pretty good sense of it in this very strange interview he did at the New York Times Dealbook event on November 29, 2023. This was right before the launch of the Cybertruck, and I just thought it would be good to play a clip of that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: Good evening, everybody. Thank you so much for being with us throughout the day. And I couldn’t be more pleased to sit with Elon Musk as our final interview of this remarkable time we’ve all had together.]

Aaron: So this is—the Dealbook Summit is a big live event in New York City. This is a one-on-one interview between Elon Musk and New York Times business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: He doesn’t need much of an introduction, but I want to say a couple things: he’s the richest person in the world.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: What?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: He may very well be the most—most consequential individual in the world right now.]

Aaron: So Musk comes in. He’s wearing all black with a World War II-style bomber jacket. And, you know, even though Andrew Ross Sorkin and Musk start talking to each other as if they’re friends, they’re very clear at the top, like, Musk is only doing this because he’s friends with Andrew. Sorkin’s being pretty obsequious. He’s asking questions that, you know, Musk should expect are coming. Nothing’s too tough here. And yet, Musk just—he seems twitchy and uncomfortable and antagonistic.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: But you write in responding to another tweet, “This is the actual truth.” And it set off a firestorm of criticism all the way to the White House.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Right. I have no problem being hated, by the way.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: I hear you.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Hate away. [laughs]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: Well, but you know what? Let’s go straight to that then, for a second.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Sure.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: Because there is an idea, and you could say that …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: It’s a real weakness to want to be liked. A real weakness. And I do not have that.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: Well, let me ask you this, then. There’s a difference between you saying, “I don’t care if anyone likes me or they hate me,” but given your power and given what you have amassed and the importance you have, I would think you want to be trusted. I would think maybe you don’t need to be liked or hated, but trusted matters. If X is gonna become a financial platform where people are gonna put their money, where the government’s gonna give you money for rockets, where people are going to get into their cars, they need to ultimately decide that you are—maybe they don’t have to say that they love you, but that you are ultimately a decent and good human being.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Yes. I mean, I think I am, but I’m certainly not going to do some sort of tap dance to prove to people that I am. And Jonathan, the only reason I’m here is because you are a friend. Like, what was my speaking fee?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: You’re not making any—first of all, I’m Andrew. But yeah …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Sorry.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: It’s okay. Second of all, we’ve known each other for a very long time.]

Doug: Maybe we should let Jonathan—I’m sorry, Ed. Why don’t you—do you have a response to that?

Sarah: [laughs]

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, having followed Elon Musk for a really long time, I think the—one of the most confident things I can say about who he is as a person—and by the way, I really—you know, most of this time, I really tried not to pay attention to him. It’s forced the issue, right? I started covering Tesla purely as an automotive phenomenon. I really didn’t want to get into him, and he’s forced us to. And it’s because if you can say one thing confidently about who he is, it’s that he is desperate for adulation. And he needs it. And, you know, he’s been able to surround himself with a feedback loop where he gets it a lot. And I think that’s why you see him sort of separating from reality to the extent that he has, where he’s sitting there and saying, “Hey, we’ve been friends for a long time, and yet somehow I don’t even know your name.”

Sarah: You said it, Ed, that he has this constant need for adulation, and yet he’s sitting there telling us that he doesn’t care whether people like him or not. And that’s just so clearly not true. Really, the pathos of it is almost enough to make me feel compassion for him, but it’s not quite enough.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: Okay.

Sarah: But, you know—but this is another thing that Trump does. “Oh, I’m just me. I’m doing my thing. I don’t care what you say.” But literally, the whole focus of his entire existence is to get people to tell him how great he is. And it’s not about likability, as Sorkin says, it’s about trust, it’s about thinking, like, basically, you’re a decent person who’s gonna do what you say you’re gonna do. “I’m gonna build a truck that’s gonna drive you around.” Then it will work. But people aren’t actually buying that again. They’re buying this sort of cult of personality that he’s got going. And so it’s a weird …

Aaron: And it’s about power, too, right?

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: It’s just like, if you’re going to amass this much power, you know, what did we learn from Spider-Man?

Doug: Great respons—with great power comes no friends.

Aaron: [laughs]

Doug: Yeah.

Ed Niedermeyer: What’s fascinating about this clip, this is a really amazing encapsulation of actually how he has become what he’s become. Like, the whole game plan is there. It starts with SpaceX, which is a spectacle. Like, the spectacle of going into space is like the foundation of his image. It’s also, by the way, a private company, so there aren’t SpaceX critics as prominently as there are Tesla critics because you just don’t have the public filings and things to go on to say, “Hey, like, this company has problems.” It’s just sort of—it’s both spectacular and secretive, and that’s sort of the foundation that he’s built on. And then with Tesla, it was sort of like, you know, take that magic and put it in the world of cars and engineer for superlatives. They’re just the best cars. They’re the best car. And it’s very Trumpian, right? But again, it’s fascinating. He sort of, like, shows this layered approach to how he’s built his image, and how he’s built this massive audience of adoring fans to feed what he supposedly doesn’t care about at all.

Aaron: So it gets a little bit more revealing here. And I promise you this is the last clip of Elon Musk anyone’s gonna have to listen to.

Doug: Please. Thank God. Thank God

Aaron: So here, Andrew Ross Sorkin is pressing Musk about how, you know, his politically controversial statements, his erratic behavior, his allowing of actual, literal Nazis and lots of porn bots to flood Twitter, and how this has, you know, basically pushed almost all of the big corporate brands and advertisers to stop advertising on the platform. And here is how Musk responds to that pretty straightforward question, which, by the way, at an event where Musk absolutely has the opportunity to, like, repair this damage, you know, like, they’re just handing him the chance to, like, fix it, and here’s how he responds.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Don’t advertise.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: You don’t want them to advertise?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: No.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: What do you mean?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: If somebody’s going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go fuck yourself. But actually, what this advertising boycott is gonna do is it’s gonna kill the company, and the whole world will know that those advertisers killed the company. And we will document it in great detail.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: But those advertisers, I imagine, are gonna say—they’re gonna say, “We didn’t kill the company.”]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Oh, yeah?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: They’re gonna say …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Tell it to Earth.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Ross Sorkin: But they’re gonna say that …]

Aaron: Tell it to Earth.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: He thinks he’s like a planetary emperor or something.

Sarah: He probably thinks that Earth is his consort. Like, that he goes back home to bed and makes love with Earth, and Earth is gonna defend him to all his detractors. Like, it’s literally like that. It’s like he thinks he’s the sky and he mates with Earth or something.

Aaron: A god.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: It’s really—it’s not …

Doug: It’s weird.

Sarah: [laughs] It’s not balanced.

Doug: I mean, I’m just—we’re just all gonna keep circling back to Trump, that what is really similar here is that he says something and then there’s a reaction, and instead of interpreting that as the consequence of my words being heard for what they are, it’s a conspiracy. It’s blackmail. It’s not just a business transaction of, like, “I don’t wanna be associated. I’m Bob Iger, I’m the CEO of Disney, and I don’t think it’s great for Mickey Mouse to be associated with, like, ‘Hitler was right.'” It’s a conspiracy to blackmail me, to ruin the company. And in the same way that Trump is like, “If you don’t vote for me, it’s the election was rigged. It wasn’t because I lost in a fair fight.”

Ed Niedermeyer: And once again, right, there’s this Trumpian element, but there’s also this really important strain of, like, tech culture thinking, right? Because one of the things that that Elon has taken from tech culture and taken to sort of cartoonish new levels is this idea of being mission driven. And it’s always been there for every one of his companies. And so it’s allowed him to say, going way, way back, “I don’t care about the money. It’s about accelerating the transition to sustainable energy. It’s about making Earth a multi-planetary species.” He frames what he does in these world historical terms.

Ed Niedermeyer: And so that grandiosity has been there from day one. What’s happened is just on a personal level, he’s become so unconstrained and so wrapped up in his own world that that appears now more and more cartoonish to us. It was plausible, I think, for a lot of people for a really long time, and this is why people genuinely thought he’s the good billionaire. He’s the billionaire who made his money by trying to make the world a better place. And again, it’s this very deep strain. Every startup has to talk about how they’re making the world a better place. He took that and turned it into sort of mass entertainment. Just like the Cybertruck is sort of like this distorted evolutionary leap of all of the things that Tesla’s always been, and it’s sort of reflecting his personal sort of unmooring from reality, we’re seeing that in how he frames and thinks about everything he does.

Ed Niedermeyer: He thinks that he is the protagonist of some boy’s adventure or some sci-fi hero whose role is to save humanity, and that anything bad that happens to him is ultimately going to be judged as he was the victim of it. So he’s always had to have that sort of foil because that’s how adventure sci-fi books work, right?

Aaron: Just to try to wrap this up and land somewhere, the Cybertruck is clearly a bad product. Elon Musk, as a man, as a human being, clearly damaged. Why are so many people buying in? How do we break the spell? How do we take power away from this guy and guys like him? What do we do about this?

Sarah: I mean, some of it has to do with people like Ed who are gonna do the reporting and tell the truth and just keep putting that out there. And I do think that that has a cumulative effect. And part of it is it should be done with the tax code. Joe Biden, in the State of the Union Address addressed this directly, that these guys are not paying their fair share. They’re not paying anywhere near what they should be paying in order to participate in this society and take all the benefits that they do from it.

Sarah: So I mean, I think starting to both hold these mostly men accountable in the public square like Ed is doing, and then yeah, just tax the fuck out of them, because that is gonna just put them back in the realm of reality. And they’re not feudal lords. They don’t have their own empires within the Earth. They are citizens of nations. They should be paying money. And that, I think, is really what it comes down to: we need to take their money.

Doug: Musk, for a long time on the Wired magazine covers and the Walter Isaacson biography is presented as this futurist, right? Like, he has a vision for the future and how it’s all gonna work out, and we’re gonna basically destroy the Earth and we’re gonna have no choice but to vacate it and build a colony. And that’s a really, really bleak view of humanity, and a very huge departure from the futurists of the middle of the 20th century. If you think about Ray Bradbury, although he wrote some very bleak dystopian novels, they were usually warnings. Like, this is where we’re headed if we keep doing this. And he helped Walt Disney, Ray Bradbury, with the plans for EPCOT and Spaceship Earth, which is this really positive view of, like, we’re all gonna be connected by technology, and it’s going to bring humans closer together, and this is just the natural evolution of progress. You know, Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek, right, which is like, we’re gonna end racial animosity and we’re just gonna all start exploring the universe together. But here’s Musk. It’s just like, nope, it’s every man—mostly men—for themselves, and, like, get a Cybertruck that is bulletproof.

Doug: And the other thing I was thinking about this is I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and the premise of that book is basically actually, when disaster strikes, people rise up and they come together. And there’s so many examples of that, but it’s usually the people in power who get scared and send the police to start shooting at people at the bridge in Hurricane Katrina, so they will all go back and not rob the nice white people. So she talks a lot about social desire and social possibility, and how they go against the grain of dominant stories of privatization in the economy and also society.

Doug: And sort of the real relevant part of it is she says, “There’s no money in what is aptly called free association. We are instead encouraged by media and advertising to fear each other and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from media rather than each other. This economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper.”

Doug: And I think that’s Elon Musk in a nutshell. “You are not your brother’s keeper, your sister’s keeper, anyone’s keeper. You have to accumulate as much as you can for yourself and then go live on Mars.”

Ed Niedermeyer: It’s been fascinating to hear sort of talk about sort of this ’80s aesthetic throughout all of this. And I grew up in the ’90s, and for me, like, the car, the vehicle, we had a carpool. One of the moms in the carpool had a Toyota Previa. And if you’re not familiar with the Toyota Previa, it’s this sort of round, very soft, rounded, glassy—it was very futuristic at the time, but it was sort of like a Star Trek shuttle. It felt like we were building as a kid in the ’90s, for me, at least in my milieu, in California, actually, in the heart of Silicon Valley, like, we were building towards a Star Trek future.


Ed Niedermeyer: And for me, the internet was a huge part of that, that connecting everyone would make us all smarter and better, and facts—you know, the marketplace of ideas, and all this really optimistic stuff that is very clearly curdled and is curdling. And I think that the interesting parallel is that the internet is becoming less useful as a way to connect and relate and to become better people. It’s making us worse people. The ecosystem that has driven that trajectory is also the ecosystem for whom Elon Musk is maybe the id, but for a long time, the mascot of. He’s the ultimate Silicon Valley mascot. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this sort of dark turn that the internet is taking—and by the way, which I think is getting much worse with generative AI and things like that, I think it’s tragic how useless the internet is becoming. And the fact that the Cybertruck can be so powerful as a meme and yet so useless as what it actually is.

Ed Niedermeyer: You know, it’s so Baudrillardian that we’re in the hyper-real here. You know, we’re diverging between this world that we live in online and then this world that we live in in reality. And the internet, instead of helping us make sense of and do a better job of existing in our reality, it’s perverting us and distracting us and giving us misinformation and making us angry at each other and driving us apart. You know, in a lot of ways, Elon Musk and his trajectory is that story. And I think that the Cybertruck is the point at which this finally starts to become clear.

Ed Niedermeyer: The question and the scary part of all this, and we have an election this year where there’s sort of a similar situation, where it’s like when someone comes out and says, “Hey, this is who I really am and this is where we really are,” a lot of that is terrifying and a huge break from who we thought we were as a country or something. Where I try and look for hope is that I think Musk has proven that his cultural perception manipulations and socially engineering this cult and this media ecosystem around himself has had a lot of real short term advantages, but I think it is ultimately a strategy that short term advantages disappear over the long term. I think you see this with every kind of dictatorship. Ultimately, when that dictator becomes insulated from the rest of the world—which always happens—you know, they destroy themselves. That’s where I get hope is that ultimately being disconnected from reality is just maladaptive, and eventually the real world sort of reimposes itself. But who knows?

Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks again to Ed Niedermeyer for joining us. If you want to hear more of our conversation with Ed, we actually did record an entire Patreon bonus. We’ll be posting that pretty soon. Enlist as a Patreon supporter of The War on Cars. You can hear more of this. It was actually a great conversation. We highly recommend it.

Sarah: And look for Ed’s book, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors at your local bookseller.

Doug: Special thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the parking Reform Network. Again, you can go to TheWaronCars.org and click “Support Us” if you want to enlist as a Patreon supporter. So thanks.

Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Yessenia Moreno. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Aaron Naperstak.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.

Sarah: I have to practice my—my evil cackle.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: [cackles evilly]

Aaron: I have more of a—what were those guys? Beavis and Butthead? Mine reverts to Beavis and Butthead.