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Elon Musk introduces the Cybertruck at Tesla's design studio on Nov. 21, 2019, in Hawthorne, Calif. The windows were broken during a demonstration intended to show the strength of the glass.Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press

In a rambling and awkward ceremony at Tesla Inc.’s factory in Austin, Tex., late last week, the company’s self-anointed “techno-king” Elon Musk handed over the first Cybertrucks to customers.

The electric pickup arrives two years late, with less driving range and a higher price than initially promised, but Musk ignored those issues and talked up the Cybertruck’s bulletproof exterior (that isn’t totally bulletproof), the idea that this giant truck will “win” in any crash, and its strikingly futuristic design.

“Finally, the future will look like the future,” Musk said to an audience while standing in the truck’s bed.

It certainly looks like a future – an apocalyptic, dystopian one as envisioned by a billionaire who seems desperate to escape this planet – but the Cybertruck doesn’t represent the best possible future, and it’s far from the best new product Tesla could have made.

“Here at Tesla, we have the finest in apocalypse technology,” Musk said, while extolling the truck’s toughness and bulletproof panels. “You just never know. I mean, sometimes you get these late-civilization vibes. You never know, the apocalypse could come along at any moment.”

The Cybertruck is the most anti-social vehicle on the road at a time when we need the opposite: cars designed with a social conscience, cars that value those outside as much as inside, cars that fit into the urban landscape rather than aim to dominate it.

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A Tesla Cybertruck on display at the Tesla showroom in Buena Park, Calif. on Dec. 3.Richard Vogel/The Associated Press

“If you’re ever in an argument with another car, you will win,” Musk told the first Cybertruck owners. If Cybertruck drivers “win” in a crash, that means the passengers in the other car “lose.” There should be no winners and losers on the road.

The tragedy is that the technologically impressive Cybertruck could have been conceived as a force for good. Based on the limited information available, it appears to be a leap forward in engineering and vehicle architecture. (A request to interview one of the vehicle’s engineers garnered no response from Tesla, as expected.)

The all-wheel-drive Cybertruck has 547 kilometres of estimated range, according to Tesla, which is a far cry from the 800 originally advertised, but still pretty great for a big truck. Even the less expensive rear-drive model due in 2025 is good for 504 kilometres. Canadian prices aren’t available at the time of writing, but in the United States, it ranges from US$60,990 for the rear-drive model to US$99,980 for the tri-motor, 845-horsepower Cyberbeast.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first vehicle that runs on 48 volts for its low-voltage circuit. (Some cars run both 12- and 48-volt circuits to power things like touchscreens and active suspension, but most are 12-volt only.) The 48-volt architecture, Musk said, uses 70 per cent less wiring (presumably compared with a 12-volt system). That should make the vehicle lighter and reduce manufacturing costs. Car insurance company Hagerty got early access to the vehicle and explained the benefits well in its video.

The Cybertruck also has a steer-by-wire system with no physical connection between the steering wheel and the wheels, which, again, is another first for a production car. Doing without a physical steering column opens up a world of design and packaging possibilities.

And then there’s the way it looks. It’s so refreshing to see a vehicle with such an original design, something that throws out the rule book, and yet so disappointing that it takes the form of an armoured personnel carrier.

And these features are likely just the tip of the engineering iceberg. We’ll have to wait for a proper teardown to discover all the clever technologies that make this vehicle possible.

Tesla is in the rare and enviable position of being able to create the future, something other car companies struggle with. (The electric Ford F-150 Lightning might be the most important, least exciting vehicle in memory.) It’s exciting to imagine what Tesla’s engineers could have done if they were freed from Musk’s world view, in which civilization is on the brink of collapse, and instead built a vehicle that helps create a better future, one in which vehicles adapt to their environment rather than try to conquer it.

For starters, the car could have been pedestrian-friendly with a lower front grille instead of resembling a battering ram with sharp metal edges. It could have also been smaller and more affordable, requiring less battery to go even farther. It could have been the long-rumoured US$25,000 Tesla EV, a product that could reinvigorate and hasten EV uptake.

Instead of looking like a vehicle that’s fearful of the outside world, it could have had large windows and great outward visibility, made possible in part by the packaging benefits of steer-by-wire.

Or, what if Tesla’s engineers had made a smaller, less expensive pickup for tradespeople and urban delivery? Instead of focusing on making the Cybertruck bullet-resistant, the engineers could have worked to make a vehicle with the capability of a full-size Ford F-150 on the footprint of a compact Ford Maverick, something that seems entirely possible with the technology Tesla is touting.

It’s such a shame to waste so much engineering talent and money developing an expensive, anti-social armoured truck built for people who fear the violent collapse of civilization and/or just want to look tough. The future doesn’t have to look like this; it can be better.

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