Why the Tesla Cybertruck’s Stainless Steel Body Panels Could Be a Problem

Love it or hate it, the Tesla Cybertruck electric pickup draws eyes. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has claimed the truck’s design was influenced by Blade Runner. Although with those angular, shiny stainless steel panels, some commenters have Back to the Future in mind instead. But choosing steel over aluminum is more than a little interesting. Other Tesla vehicles are made of aluminum, as is the F-150 that Tesla Chief Designer Franz von Holhausen took a hammer to. And despite Musk’s tweets about it, using stainless steel for the Tesla truck’s body panels could cause issues.

Why use stainless steel body panels in the first place?

Interestingly, according to Musk, stainless steel wasn’t Tesla’s first choice. The Cybertruck was originally going to have titanium body panels. However, the CEO stated that cold-rolled 30X stainless-steel was much stronger and harder. So much so, it allegedly breaks stamping presses, which explains the Cybertruck’s extreme angles. This particular alloy, Musk claims, is also used for SpaceX Starship skins—and it’s an alloy supposedly of Tesla’s own design.

However, some doubt the accuracy of Musk’s claims. For one, why the X? It reminds me uncomfortably of how Mega Man games took place in the year 20XX. To some, it just seems like a marketing ploy or a way to disguise the actual alloy. And it’s not like 300-series stainless steel alloys—which Musk himself revealed is what 30X is based on—are some brand-new technology.

Digging into the Tesla Cybertruck’s stainless steel body panels

Alex Ripstein, R&D engineer for Stewart-Haas Racing, tweeted that 304 stainless steel is quite a common industrial alloy, and “gets stamped with regularity.” Ripstein followed up by saying that 300-series alloys’ ability to work harden is precisely why they’re used. And, as he and other Twitter users pointed out if a 300-series alloy broke stamping presses, we wouldn’t have stainless steel sinks.

But it may not be completely the fault of the specific alloy. As Jalopnik reported, the Tesla truck’s body panels are 0.12” thick. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider that even steel truck panels are usually only 0.032” thick. So, the Cybertruck electric pickup, instead of lightweight aluminum, is using thick, heavy steel?

Tesla Cybertruck Premiere 11-21-19-00
Tesla Cybertruck | Tesla

The primary concern for EVs, especially trucks, is range. One of the benefits Ford saw when going aluminum with the F-150 is that lighter weight increases energy efficiency. A heavy body is just going to drain batteries faster. Lighter weight also means the truck can tow and haul more. So, Tesla is essentially handicapping their truck’s utility by using stainless steel. And the steel’s thickness may explain why Musk is tweeting about stamping presses breaking.

The day-to-day problems with stainless steel body panels

But using stainless steel for the Tesla truck’s body panels could also cause the truck’s owners problems. Yes, the material turns heads and stops traffic, which is why the exterior of the iconic DeLorean was made out of it, according to Autoblog. But even Musk’s 30X alloy has limitations.

Stainless steel shows scratches, and as scratches in matte paint, you can’t just spray over it. That would ruin the whole effect. Instead, the surface has to be “re-grained” via abrasion. And dents are even more of a hassle.

With a normal painted panel, dents can be filled in or popped out. Filler then smooths the whole thing out, and paint hides it all. But you can’t paint bare stainless steel. Dents can be repaired some of the time with a bit of filling and sanding—but mostly, the entire panel just gets replaced. Paying for Cybertruck repairs would get expensive fast.

It must be noted that Tesla has struggled and continues to struggle with paint quality control. The bare metal body may be the company’s way of avoiding the hassle completely. And, as InsideEVs points out, the Cybertruck’s angular body would be easy to wrap. That would provide both body protection, and potentially cheaper than painting the truck.

But repair costs might not be the only expense these stainless steel body panels could cause.

Potential safety issues

As part of the Cybertruck’s reveal, von Holhausen took a hammer to it to demonstrate the steel panels’ strength. But the lack of dents may not actually be a good thing.

Comparing IIHS side-impact test deformation between the barrier (white) and the SUV (yellow)
Comparing IIHS side-impact test deformation between the barrier (white) and the SUV (yellow) | IIHS

From a side-impact perspective, you absolutely don’t want anything coming into the cabin. There, you want the body to not bend or break. Therefore, considering how even modern SUVs do poorly in side-impact IIHS tests, this may actually be beneficial.

2019 IIHS Crash Tests
2019 IIHS Crash Tests | IIHS

But in a frontal crash, trucks aren’t supposed to be that rigid. Modern vehicles look like wrecks even in ‘low-speed’ crashes because of crumple zones. Crash structures in the front crumple to absorb the impact—so your body doesn’t. That’s why the stylish cars of the 50s and 60s were such death-traps: the metal stood firm, the people inside not so much. That’s not to say Tesla haven’t installed airbags or crumple zones. But the automaker hasn’t revealed anything about them, either.

Finally, we have to get back to the weight. Pickup trucks are doing better in crash tests, but as the IIHS notes, tests aren’t the real world. Modern trucks and SUVs have gotten so heavy, the IIHS is having to use heavier rams traveling at higher speeds to accurately perform crash tests. An aluminum-bodied F-150 already weighs almost 5000 pounds, according to Car and Driver. The Cybertruck will most likely weigh even more.