Tesla Cybertruck tug-of-war with a Ford F-150 is high stakes and highly unlikely

Key Points
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the forthcoming Cybertruck performs better than a Ford F-150.
  • A video Musk had made portrays the all-wheel-drive Tesla vehicle pulling a rear-wheel-drive Ford F-150 uphill.
  • A Ford X exec, Sunny Madra, tweeted at Musk, challenging him to a fair fight. But a Ford spokesperson says the tweet was tongue-in-cheek.
'Bring it on'—Tesla's Cybertruck battles Ford's F-150 in a pickup truck showdown
'Bring it on'—Tesla's Cybertruck battles Ford's F-150 in a pickup truck showdown

Tesla CEO Elon Musk boasted this week on Twitter that his company's forthcoming Cybertruck is a "Better truck than an F-150, faster than a Porsche 911." He followed that claim by posting a video of the Cybertruck prototype ostensibly hauling a Ford F-150 uphill.

Tweet with video

However, Musk and Tesla didn't say which exact configuration of the Cybertruck, or F-150, they used for the stunt. And some viewers lobbed criticisms of an unfair fight at Musk, after seeing what was apparently an all-wheel-drive Cybertruck pulling a rear-wheel-drive Ford F-150 in the Tesla video.

On Monday, Ford X Vice President Sundeep (Sunny) Madra clapped back at Musk, urging him to send over a Cybertruck for an "apples to apples" tug-of-war test.

While fans of both companies are clamoring to see it, that contest is not likely to happen.

A Ford spokesperson told CNBC that Madra's tweet was "tongue-in-cheek to point out the absurdity of Tesla’s video, nothing more."

Tesla should be cautious about putting its Cybertruck prototype, and all the proprietary design and tech elements within it, into the hands of a competitor, too.

Auto industry analysts viewed Tesla's bravado as fun marketing, but nothing more.

Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Navigant Research and an engineer, said, "Automakers do this kind of nonsense all the time, but Tesla takes it to the extreme."

In its own stunt video this summer, Ford took its EV F-150 prototype to a train yard and pulled 42 F-150s loaded on 10 double-decker rail cars. Ford is partnering with another would-be Tesla competitor, Rivian, to make its push into electric vehicles.

Tesla's unveiling of its new Cybertruck didn't go as planned
Tesla's unveiling of its new Cybertruck didn't go as planned

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, said of the supposed tug-of-war captured on video, "It's great for publicity, it's great for media attention, and that's all Elon is chasing right now."

Ford, its partner Rivian, and General Motors are all expected to bring new electric pickups to market before or during the same time frame as the Tesla Cybertruck. Tesla said it should be nearing start of production for the Cybertruck in late 2021.

"This will be the first time Tesla will launch an all-new vehicle type after competitors have launched their pure-electric, all-new vehicles that directly compete with Tesla," Brauer said. "I think he's got much bigger things to worry about than glass that does or doesn't break or whether or not his truck can pull another truck around."

Musk's track record doesn't bode well for a tug-of-war happening for real, either.

In early November, for example, the Tesla leader taunted one of his biggest critics, Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn. But he then invited the short seller to visit Tesla's facilities to see how well the electric-car company is operating.

Einhorn, who taunted the CEO back in his reply, said yes to the invitation. But Tesla and Musk had yet to make arrangements for the visit, the investor tweeted on Nov. 22.

Einhorn Tweet

Brauer and Abuelsamid said if such a contest does ever become a reality, it would be best to put Ford's all-electric F-150 prototype against the Tesla Cybertruck prototype. Or, Abuelsamid suggested, for both American automakers to use towing tests by SAE International, which assists in setting industry regulations and standards.

"There are other standardized metrics you can use for evaluating trucks that are standard for that market segment," Abuelsamid said. But he added, given they're prototypes, "it's probably better to drop the whole thing. It's irrelevant."

After Musk made such bold claims, risk of embarrassment and loss of credibility for the CEO is very high. It's equally high, if not more so, for Ford, whose F-series trucks have maintained their bestselling status for 42 years.

Still, Musk tweeted that he'll aim to make this stunt happen, with a webcast, next week.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweet

A self-proclaimed Musk fan, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, questioned Musk's claims about the Cybertruck's superior performance against an equivalent Ford truck.

He tweeted to the Tesla CEO, "Electric vehicles are famously heavy — over both axles. It's all about the weight borne by spinning tires. That's the source of traction, not the engine power." And "We all love Torque. But high Torque just spins a tire in place if there's not enough weight to provide traction."

Ultimately, if the companies ever agree to an "apples to apples" competition, Tyson had a suggestion for the experiment's design. He tweeted: "Fully load the F150, giving highest traction to its rear wheels, then try to drag that up the hill. I otherwise agree: Load both to the max and the highest torque wins."

Ford challenged Tesla to an 'apples to apples' tug-of-war between pickup trucks
Ford challenged Tesla to an 'apples to apples' tug-of-war between pickup trucks