It’s Not ‘Green’ to Preorder Cars Like iPhones

Tesla fans aren’t saving the planet by ordering every new model

Paris Marx
Nov 25, 2019 · 4 min read

Last week, Elon Musk unveiled his polarizing Cybertruck. I could say a lot on the design decisions and the implications of it, but I want to focus on a different angle that isn’t getting as much attention: the preorder process.

Musk prides himself and Tesla on being concerned about the environment. It’s a questionable assertion, but let’s take him at his word for a moment. If Tesla’s mission is really to create more sustainable transportation, does treating every new vehicle model like an iPhone release really move that goal forward?

At time of writing, Musk claims there are more than 200,000 Cybertruck preorders. That’s not as impressive as it sounds when you consider that it only costs $100 to reserve a vehicle that likely won’t be delivered for two or more years and a sizeable number of people report that they accidentally ordered multiple vehicles when they only meant to reserve one. But it still deserves a more in-depth investigation.

Tesla’s first vehicle was the Roadster, an electric sports car in the $100,000 range that would help to fund more affordable models in the future. That ensured that only well-off people could afford to get a Tesla for a long time, and made Tesla vehicles a status symbol that were desired by far more people who bought into Musk’s stated mission.

Over time, that dedication has grown, and as the Model S and Model 3 have been released, more people have been able to show their commitment by buying a vehicle — or at least preordering one in the hopes that when Musk is finally ready to deliver after the inevitable delays they’ll have the money to shell out.

The Model 3 required a deposit of $1,000, still a steep reservation price for people on modest incomes. However, at a refundable $100, a Cybertruck preorder can be easily picked up for some Twitter clout, inflating the numbers along with the duplicates to make the launch look incredibly successful for Musk. It’s a great PR move that uncritical journalists will be happy to parrot for the megalomaniacal billionaire.

However, Musk is cultivating a preorder practice that’s reminiscent of what Apple does with its iPhone — though iPhone customers have to pay full price and will actually get what they order in a reasonable time frame. When Apple announces new iPhones every September, there is a group of people with above-average incomes who preorder the new one every single year, regardless of the environmental impact of buying new gadgets. They just have to have it.

Elon Musk is cultivating the same habit among Tesla fans.

If you scroll through Twitter, you’ll see plenty of people bragging about their Cybertruck preorders. This not only creates social pressure to convince others to join in, it also allows those people to gain a degree of prestige because they were able to reserve the Big New Thing.

But more than showing off the order, many also use the tweet to show off the fact that it’s not their only Tesla product. The Cybertruck preorder sits beside existing Tesla vehicles or home batteries they own, or preorders for the Model Y crossover that’s also promised to be delivered in 2021 from a factory in Berlin that construction hasn’t even started on yet.

Those tweets also reveal that many preorders were made not because the Cybertruck provides utility for the orderers, but because it’s the new Tesla and they have to have it.

Take, for example, the response of noted Tesla fan and tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee, who owns another Tesla and has interviewed Musk in the past. He admitted he’s a person who “doesn’t really use pickup trucks,” but still ordered one because… “in these two days, it’s grown on me a bit” and even though “it’s not pretty,” “I’m here for its position as a disruptor.” Great reasons to buy a new vehicle you don’t need.

Just because the Cybertruck has a battery instead of an internal combustion engine (ICE) doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an environmental footprint. Around half of the lifecycle emissions of an electric vehicle can come from the battery alone, and depending on where the battery is produced and the type of grid power used to power the vehicle, the benefits of an electric vehicle over an ICE vehicle can be much less than one might believe.

Given the size of the Cybertruck, it will require an even larger battery than the cars that Tesla has a history of producing, meaning a larger environmental footprint. A shift from ICE- to battery-power vehicles will also require a massive increase in the amount of minerals and metals mined around the world to create those batteries, polluting local environments and causing damage to communities. Then there’s also the pollution that comes from vehicle tires, ICE and electric alike, which San Francisco recently found was a big problem.

Simply because a vehicle is electric doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly, and the larger that vehicle, the greater its footprint. If Musk and Tesla fans are really concerned about the environment, not just associating themselves with a brand, they should realize that preordering a new vehicle simply because it exists and looks… “Brutalist” isn’t going to save the planet.

The Cybertruck isn’t green; it’s greenwashing. Anyone who really cares about the environment instead of being part of the latest fad should cancel their preorders and figure out how they can reduce their vehicle use, regardless of whether it’s powered by gas, diesel, or a battery.

GIF of Tesla employee throwing a ball at the Cybertruck window and breaking it.
GIF of Tesla employee throwing a ball at the Cybertruck window and breaking it.

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically on tech, cities, and media, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter:

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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