Elon Musk has delivered on his promise to get the Tesla Cybertruck into production. The wedge-shaped, Syd Mead meets Giorgetto Giugiaro design is out in the world, albeit with some design concessions from the concept version to make the whole package work. It might not go as far as originally promised, it’s more expensive than he originally said it would be, but the Cybertruck still looks very close to the concept Musk surprised us with back in 2019—stainless steel body panels and all. Those stainless steel body panels might be one of the truck’s biggest draws, but could they be its Achilles heel?
Musk and Tesla claim that the truck's hard surface is so damage-resistant that it can stop bullets. But like every material in the known physical realm, it can be broken. And when something gets broken, it’ll need to be repaired. That's where things get tricky here.
After all, there are only about a baker’s dozen’s worth of production Cybertrucks on the road. Coupled with Tesla’s notoriously rigorous and tight-lipped stance toward its trade secrets about repairability, we won’t know the explicit, granular details of how to repair the Cybertruck until there are more than a few on the road, and rumblings about the truck in private, go public.
Still, we all have eyes. The Cybertruck isn’t the first electric truck, not the first Tesla, and not the first vehicle to be made of stainless steel.
To get an idea of what Cybetruck owners might be in for when the going gets tough for their trucks, I reached out to a few sources familiar with autobody repair, stainless steel repair, fixing Teslas specifically, and other people with expert knowledge in this field.
The picture they painted is cautiously optimistic at best, but also earnest about the challenges the truck’s design presents. And those experts are adamant about how the truck could further test the often-contentious relationships between the consumer, auto body technicians and the insurance industry.
Stainless Steel Is Hard To Repair
The Cybertruck is unusually stiff. Its 3 millimetre thick stainless steel panels are undoubtedly an industry first. Musk bragged that traditional auto presses, which can exert literal tons of force, can’t even shape the stuff because it’s so thick and hard. It’s silly to expect that a standard PDR (paintless dent removal) guy could use their tools to hammer out any dents. Yet, not considering the Cybertruck’s proprietary metal alloy and absurd thickness, we already have at least a bit of a precedent of how to repair stainless steel—an example from the 1980s, when DeLoreans were still new and probably more on the road than they are today.
It takes a lot of labour to ensure the body panels remain straight and usable. Then, unlike normal car steel (or even aluminium) body panels, you can’t hide structurally sound, but visually unappealing, repairs behind body filler and paint since the trucks are unpainted. So, every repair has to be pitch-perfect, which isn’t easy, and, more crucially, very time-consuming.
This is why the stories behind painted DeLoreans often come from accident-involved vehicles; it didn’t make any financial sense to spend hours repairing a stainless steel panel. Instead, some owners and body shop guys would use traditional techniques involving body filler, and then opt to paint the car.
“Repairing stainless steel is a novelty,” said Josh Bengston, owner and operator of DeLorean Industries, in Tallmadge, Ohio. His company repairs DMC-12s and sells parts for them. Although our conversation was short, Bengston was pointed and direct. Repairing stainless steel really only makes sense for classic and collector cars like the DeLorean where replacements might not exist, and the cars themselves are special, rare items for hobbyists.
James Espey, president of another shop, Classic DMC, was a little more optimistic. But he agreed that the labour to repair stainless steel isn’t easy. Espey described some of the repair processes of DeLorean panels as “old school,” where they’re using pick and files, not the computerised body shop tools to beat out divots and dings. It’s an art form that takes a lot more time than the average steel wing/fender. “If you're going to spend more than say, eight, nine hours trying to do a repair, you’re better off just buying a new (panel),” Espey said.
Those concerns of an elevated labour cost were shared amongst a Facebook group full of novice and veteran auto body repair technicians. Sure, the Cybertruck’s panels will potentially be able to be repaired like DeLoreans were, but there’s the big question: will insurance companies approve labour-intensive repairs? High labour totals (loss) out cars; they’re why one Ohio driver’s Rivian R1T repair came out to a whopping $42,000 for what appeared to be a basic fender bender. High repair bills like that are the things that total out trucks, as some Rivian owners are learning.
Replacing Panels Could Open Up a Twofold Problem
Replacing panels would likely be significantly quicker (and thus represent lower labour costs) than repairing them, insisting on replacing rather than repairing could open up a new can of worms. Arguably, it’s only exacerbating the current stress points Tesla owners are already experiencing with their insurance companies: long waits for repair times, and high repair costs, even before Tesla’s controversial choice to go with stainless steel panels.
“So a lot of customers hire me to fight insurance companies because insurance companies do not want to pay what Tesla requires you do to return a vehicle to pre-loss condition,” said Billy Walkowiak, the CEO of Collision Safety Consultants, a firm in part meant to serve as an advocate and adjudicator for insurance claimants who may not feel like the insurance company is effectively making them whole. “I personally probably do 10 to 15 Teslas a week,” he said.
Walkowiak explained that although we can’t quite yet know what’s going to happen with the Cybertruck, Tesla’s repair procedures have historically skewed toward replacement of parts, rather than repairing parts strategy. Add in the complicated software recalibration procedures and elevated labour costs—only Tesla-certified technicians can repair Tesla vehicles—and it all gets expensive very quickly. Walkowiak shared a Tesla Model 3 claim that was $22,000, with $14,000 of that solely being replacement parts. Yikes.
“Tesla's getting challenged because insurance companies now have their greedy little hands into the estimating software program," Walkowiak said. "And they can say that they don’t believe it needs that we [the body shop says] because according to the [insurance company’s] software, it doesn't need that, or [they’re] not paying for that, or that's too expensive."
Be that as it may, the replacement parts strategy that will likely apply to the Cybertruck could create a new problem: can Tesla even make enough parts to keep up?
“I remember reading stories in the automotive trade press about how replacement parts for the Model S and the 3 the Y, and the X were all short supply items because they were building everything they could make. [Tesla] hadn't allocated enough spare parts is how I understood it,” Espey added.
Tesla’s part repair woes have gotten somewhat better in recent years, but it’s not all that hard to find reports on social media of Tesla owners upset that their repairs take a long time, with wait times upward of six months. “The DeLorean company was really good about making every dealer buy a certain subset of spare parts, including body panels," Epsey said. “Is every Tesla service centre going to have body panels on hand to ship?”
He also cast doubt on any availability of outside OEM parts. Since the Cybertruck is purportedly using a custom stainless steel alloy, it’s not clear if third-party companies will be able to create aftermarket body panels for the truck.
Some Remain Optimistic
Still, Espey wasn't all doom and gloom on the Cybetruck. Later in our conversation, he compared the Cybertruck’s stainless steel panels to the Ford F-150’s aluminium body—something that was intensely controversial when it first came out.
Of course, there are some lingering feelings about the costs and techniques of repairing an aluminium car, but by and large, the auto body repair industry has adapted. (The vast popularity of the F-150 has a way of doing that.) These days, aluminium body repair is kind of a non-issue, although some body shop guys do insist the elevated costs associated with repairing them are still very much an issue.
Employees at another Ohio body shop I spoke to (that includes a 7,000-square-foot dedicated EV repair space) were more optimistic too. They insisted Tesla usually gives out good training on how to repair its vehicles, a sentiment seconded by other industry professionals I surveyed for this story. It's very possible the automaker—which does not speak to the press in America—has a plan for repairs that we're not privy to yet.
However, collision repair involves more than just the physical act of pulling out a dent and paying a body shop guy. There are a lot of moving pieces at work here, and it’s not clear how the Cybertruck will fare when the chips fall where they may.