Elon Musk is famous for approaching things from a physics framework. Rather than reasoning by analogy, he’s breaking down problems into fundamental assumptions that he knows are true — and reasons up from there.
In the past, this way of thinking enabled SpaceX to build rockets that are significantly cheaper than their competitors, by purchasing the raw materials — aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber — for about 2% of the typical price of a finished rocket.
Similarly, Musk didn’t simply accept that huge battery packs, like the ones Tesla needed, have historically been expensive and that was unlikely to change.
Musk broke down the stock market value of all material constituents of a battery — cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can.
He quickly realized that if you bought each of these materials individually, you would end up with a price much closer to $80/kWh instead of $600/kWh, Musk explained to Kevin Rose in an interview in 2013.
With engineering and design decisions that are based on these fundamental truths, Musk isn’t looking for the best solution where everyone else is already looking. He and his team create products from scratch. And they don’t design by committee.
“I designed what I thought would be the perfect car for me, actually. I think this is generally a good approach: if you’re going to design something and create a product, it’s very difficult to infer what others would love. But you know what you love. So you make something that you love, and hopefully you’re not unique in the world — and others will like it too”, Musk told Ryan McCaffrey on a recent episode of Ride the Lightning, McCaffrey’s weekly Tesla podcast when discussing the design process for the original Model S.
Tesla’s much-discussed Cybertruck is no exception: from its 30X cold-rolled stainless steel exoskeleton, the insanely low drag-coefficient and extremely competitive pricing to its simply mind-blowing specs — Cybertruck is the most brilliant example of first principles design.
More importantly, it’s also a pickup truck that Elon Musk is absolutely in love with — remember the line about “make something you love, so others will love it too”? Exactly.
Back in 2013, Musk tweeted:
4 years later, he's still dying to build it.
And in 2018:
This year, when it finally became clear that Tesla would unveil its long-awaited pickup truck — Cybertruck — Musk went into detail when talking to Kara Swisher on the Recode Decode podcast.
“I’m personally most excited about the pickup truck. It’s going to be like a really futuristic, like cyberpunk, “Blade Runner” pickup truck. This will be heart-stopping. It stops my heart. […] It’s something I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. I’ve really wanted something that’s like super-futuristic cyberpunk.”
Having been a massive sci-fi fan for pretty much his entire life, Cybertruck is a distillation of everything Musk loves. Together with Tesla Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen, he made sure Cybertruck would carry the same futuristic badass vibe as the vehicles in the books he read as a kid.
That’s why, after a short period of shock over the unconventional design, most people fell for the futuristic, polygon-shaped vehicle — and preordered it. Musk’s last update confirmed 250.000 preorders. Today, the number likely is even higher (most estimates range between 350.000 and 400.000 preorders).
Could Tesla have made a more traditional-looking pickup truck with similarly good specs? Probably. Sure, a lot of the reasons why the Cybertruck design is genius boils down to its first-principles approach, but Tesla also hires the very best engineers, so they probably could have achieved some amazing feats with a typical pickup design as well.
But it wouldn’t have been the same.
Essentially, Musk’s genuine passion for making Cybertruck the unique and mind-blowing vehicle that it turned out to be, is what was crucial to its success.
If you don’t love your product, no one else will.
But if you pour your heart and soul into making it the best product it can possibly be — based on first principles —, believe in the vision behind it and truly love it yourself — others will too.
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