A few days ago, I saw that automotive media outlets found something really awful on Tesla’s Cybertruck page. Most manufacturers give you a tow rating and use that in their advertising claims, but Tesla went the extra Cybermile and claimed that its vehicle can pull “near infinite mass.” I checked for myself, and not only is this hilarious claim something they’re really making, but it’s still live on the site as of this writing.
To Be Fair …
To be entirely fair to the Tesla team, they’re not the only people to do crazy things to sell a towing vehicle, and this isn’t even the first time they’ve done it.
Let’s start with the prototype F-150 Lightning’s towing stunt:
Nobody’s going to claim that the F-150 Lightning can pull a million-pound trailer, but if you put the million pounds on rails (which reduces rolling resistance) and only need to pull it on level ground at low speeds, there really isn’t any reason the Lightning couldn’t pull over a million pounds. So, it’s true, but it’s not something you can translate to real-world truck use unless you happen to own a railyard.
While not a million pounds, there’s also the time Toyota pulled a Space Shuttle with a Tundra:
You’ll notice that like the F-150 prototype stunt, the Tundra has almost zero weight on its tongue. All of the weight of the Endeavor is being held up by the axles below it, so the Tundra only had to build up momentum and not bear the weight of the Space Shuttle at all.
Just to put the icing on the cake, here’s a Porsche SUV proving its worth pulling an airliner:
Which is something Tesla has done, too:
So, yes, vehicles of all kinds can generally pull some serious mass around. With the low-end torque that’s likely to be available on the Tesla Cybertruck, it’s going to be technically capable of pulling quite a bit of mass around. To prove this, there will probably be several stunt pulls like the above done with the truck both by the company and by superfans who want to prove something.
Stunt pulls don’t really prove anything for real-world towing, but they do show that there’s a lot of power and torque on hand. There are real-world towing tests out there, which are meant to determine what a vehicle can pull in real-world conditions. But these crazy stunt pulls are just an example of a “drawbar pull.”
But Is It “Near Infinite”?
As Jason Torchinsky at The Autopian mentions, there is a way to calculate drawbar pulls based on the torque of the vehicle. If you choose a towing target with low rolling resistance, and use a lot of torque (something Cybertruck will have), the pulling capacity (not towing, but pulling) should be in the millions of pounds. So, yes, the numbers will be very big (once we have them).
But the problem with “near infinite” is that it’s a meaningless term. It’s not just vague, but literally meaningless. Mathematically speaking, something can either be infinite or not. If there’s too many to possibly ever count because you’d never get to the end (because there is no end), then it’s infinite. If it’s countable at all, even if it’s a really big number, then it’s finite. In other words, something is either infinite or it’s not, kind of like someone can either be pregnant or not pregnant. If a person was “near pregnant,” then they’re just not.
As the xkcd comic points out, this is a common thing to see in advertising, though. Vague, meaningless, and anti-mathematical claims are, in fact, very common. One example they give is GEICO’s “save up to 15% or more” tagline. Because savings can be negative (i.e., not saving) and the number can be up to 15, but also possibly more, there’s an infinite number of possible savings outcomes. In other words, meaningless marketing hogwash.
I Wouldn’t Call It Fraudulent, Though
That having been said, Elon Musk likes to use scientific or scientific sounding terms to say “really big,” and he likes to throw sci-fi sounding terms around to sound impressive. “Order of magnitude” is a common one to hear from him, for example. He describes factories as “cybernetic collectives,” and Twitter thusly:
I love how you talk
— Tesla and Doge (@TeslaAndDoge) December 4, 2022
I’m not trying to call out Elon Musk as a fraud here, though (so, please, no more ready-fire-aim C&D letters, Elon). The point I want to make is that this is Elon Musk’s style. Sometimes it does border on sci-fi technobabble, but it usually has some kind of real meaning behind it, even if somewhat exaggerated. An order of magnitude usually means to add a zero on the end, which makes the number a lot bigger. But, it can also be used in much the same way as the term “exorbitant,” which doesn’t really mean beyond orbit, but can mean “really big or expensive.”
The term “near infinite” has no precise mathematical meaning, but it does sound cool and scientific. It also sounds really, really big. It’s also hard to call it out as false advertising because it doesn’t actually specify a testable claim (which makes it decidedly unscientific). It’s Musk’s style.
But, I wouldn’t go as far as to call this fraud, because it isn’t really attempting to deceive people. Nobody thinks that a Cybertruck could pull Jupiter around the solar system (even if you could somehow hook a tow rope up to a ball of gas). Nobody thinks Cybertruck will be Chuck Norris’s truck, and move the Earth instead of moving along the Earth.
And really, Chuck Norris Facts are probably a great way to understand this claim. Nobody really thinks Chuck counted to infinity twice. Nobody really thinks that a cobra once bit him and that after five excruciating days of pain, the cobra died. Nobody really believes that he can make onions cry. But, because he was in some really unrealistic Hollywood action films, it’s a cultural reference that everyone understands, and we’re the insiders on the joke when we name his ridiculous feats the way that Starlord/Peter Quill tells aliens about the feats of Kevin Bacon and David Hasselhoff in the Guardians of the Galaxy series.
We know that Elon Musk’s companies say crazy technobabble-sounding stuff because that’s what Elon does. Almost nobody, whether a skeptic like me or the nuttiest superstan, really believes that the Cybertruck will be able to tow itself into the future by approaching the infinite.
But, if it did, some lucky (or very unlucky) Cybertruck owner would get to honestly say the last line from Planet of the Apes and damn us all to hell.
Featured image by Tesla.
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