Of the many quirks of Elon Musk’s Cybertruck, the Cybertruckiest of them all might be this: its windshield wiper. Not wipers, wiper. Tesla’s electric pickup, which debuted today and starts at $61,000, has just a single gigantic rain-wicking blade—a monstrosity that stretches several feet and that Musk says is “like a katana.” (The original idea, laser-beam wipers, apparently didn’t work.)
Nothing about the wiper or, frankly, about the Cybertruck makes much sense. It is a subzero fridge on wheels, a chef’s knife that went on the supersize-me diet and gained thousands of pounds. Tesla’s long-awaited model, its first entirely new one in four years, has a bullet- and arrow-proof exoskeleton, but it apparently struggles to climb up a dirt hill. The car is capable of pulling “near infinite mass” (according to earlier Tesla marketing) and can “serve briefly as a boat” (according to Musk), but its angular design means that even tiny manufacturing flaws stick out “like a sore thumb” (again, according to Musk).
Frankly, it is an impractical meme car for an impractical meme CEO—the perfect vehicle for the edgelord X magnate. “This car is very amateurish,” Adrian Clarke, a former car designer for Land Rover and a writer for the Autopian, told me. But at least it’s different. Most other EVs can’t say as much, even though the electric age can and should be a chance to make cars not just harder, faster, stronger, and better, but also stranger.
Traditional cars have hulking grilles in the front, because the internal combustion engine gets very hot very quickly from all of the tiny explosions that power your car. You have to cram into the backseat in part because the transmission, drive shaft, fuel tank, exhaust systems, catalytic converter, and fuel injector take up so much space. EVs don’t have to deal with any of that: They have a huge battery (the Cybertruck’s primo “Cyberbeast” model has an estimated range of up to 320 miles) and a tiny motor splayed out on a flat “skateboard” beneath the car—and that’s basically it.
Car designers, free of the constraints of a gas engine and its hundreds of parts, don’t have carte blanche, Clarke said—but they can make EVs funky. Funkier than just frunks. “We have the opportunity to give the car a totally new kind of proportion,” Steffen Köhl, Mercedes-Benz’s director of advanced exterior design, told Car and Driver. The Cybertruck, for all of its many faults, lives up to this promise. Too many other EVs don’t. A fully electric Ford F-150 Lightning is a technological feat that can power a house for up to three days, but from a distance, you can’t tell it apart from its gas-powered cousin. Other EVs are even more Wonder Bread: The electric Hyundai Genesis G80 is so similar to its gas twin that it has been described as an “EV in disguise.” Toyota is working on a simulated stick shift for EVs that will let drivers pretend to manually shift gears, and many EVs spurt out fake engine noises.
Some EVs, such as the retro-futuristic Hyundai Ioniq 6, are more sci-fi, but on the whole, carmakers are trying to make the jump to EVs easier by sticking with the big-grilled designs that drivers already know. That’s apparently why Ford made the F-150 EV look so familiar. “The car market is quite conservative,” Clarke said, “because for most people, a car is the second-biggest purchase they’ll make.” That tendency is dumbing down the truly world-changing capabilities of the electric car. Any path to hitting the world’s climate goals involves an embrace of EVs, but in the U.S., they still represent just a sliver of new-car sales. The transition is proving to be rocky at best, with cars that are far too expensive and far too partisan. (EVs have become even more of a blue-state thing in recent years.)
With all of this in mind, design may in fact be more important than ever, Clarke said, especially because every electric car drives basically the same hyper-fast, hyper-quiet way. The Cybertruck isn’t my style, and it may not be yours. (Which is fine: It’s not even slated to hit the market until next year, starting with the most expensive versions, which top out at just shy of $100,000.) The Cybertruck “will be competitive with its electric challengers but does not undercut them in range and price,” Corey Cantor, an EV analyst at BloombergNEF, told me. Even so, there’s no denying Tesla’s influence: Many major automakers are planning to use the company’s charging adapter, and touch-screen dashboards now abound. In part because of Tesla, every car company, it seems, wants to be a tech company. “There’s been some nice vehicle launches this year, but not one that I think is as big as this, in terms of normal interest,” Cantor said.
Perhaps the Cybertruck’s odd design might trickle down to more practical yet still strange and futuristic EVs from other companies. A bonanza of vanilla EVs isn’t inspiring purchases in much of the country. Maybe a katana windshield wiper can.