Tesla Cybertruck Isn’t Nearly as Bulletproof as Elon Musk Wants You to Think

Musk bragged about the pickup's resistance to a "Tommy gun," but that's not the protection he originally promised.
Tesla, The Drive

One of the Tesla Cybertruck‘s headline features is its “bulletproof” windows and stainless steel body. Elon Musk has even gone as far as describing the angular, polarizing electric pickup as an “armored personnel carrier from the future.” But if the Cybertruck’s protection from Robin Hood is a major selling point for you, you should know that Tesla’s proof of its bullet resistance crumples like a hollow point under close scrutiny.

The Cybertruck’s repute among fans as an apocalypse-ready survival vehicle stems from the truck’s 2019 reveal, where Musk said it would be “literally bulletproof to a nine-millimeter handgun.” He likely referred to 9x19mm Parabellum, possibly the most commonly used pistol round in the world. To illustrate its resistance, the stage backdrop showed a slow-mo video of a bullet disintegrating on impact with a metal surface.

Of course, that was all a dog and pony show, one which Tesla fans will tell you doesn’t represent the final product—especially those windows. The Cybertruck was significantly redesigned on the path to production, so what we saw on the stage that day doesn’t necessarily apply to the trucks that’ll be delivered later this month. Instead, let’s go by the ballistic trial a pre-production Cybertruck was subjected to last month.

On October 20, Musk said on Twitter that Tesla demonstrated the Cybertruck’s bulletproofing by firing “the entire drum magazine of a Tommy gun into the driver door Al Capone style.” He refers of course to the Thompson submachine gun, an early automatic weapon famed for its use by the U.S. military and organized crime. But the Thompson doesn’t fire the 9mm Parabellum round that Tesla said the Cybertruck could withstand. It’s chambered in .45 ACP, and the distinction can’t be overlooked when evaluating the Cybertruck’s protection.

.45 ACP is a larger-caliber bullet with broadly similar performance to 9mm Parabellum, with one exception according to Pew Pew Tactical: Penetration. .45 ACP is a wider bullet that’s almost exclusively subsonic, a low-velocity round. The faster, narrower 9mm Parabellum by contrast is more capable of punching through body armor. Or in this case, a three-millimeter sheet of stainless steel.

See where this is going? Musk said the Cybertruck’s side would stop a round that’s more likely to punch through armor, then had Tesla throw a softball for itself by using one with poorer penetration. Yes, Tesla showed a slow-mo of a round impacting metal, but there are reasons to doubt that .gif’s truthfulness.

Whether the bullet and surface depicted were actually a 9mm Parabellum and the side of a Cybertruck is questionable, as Tesla’s credibility isn’t sterling. This was the company that has already misled the public about the Cybertruck’s capabilities, never mind claimed its cars would drive themselves cross-country in 2017, that it would build a hovering supercar by 2020, and has been fined for exaggerating its cars’ ranges. What Musk promises on stage can’t be taken at face value, and the use of .45 ACP for a Musk-boosted ballistics test instead of 9mm Parabellum should raise the eyebrows of anyone who knows the first thing about firearms.

Of course, to fixate on the difference between two pistol calibers is to split hairs. Neither are anywhere close to the most powerful rounds your average American can get their hands on, and dump downrange without abandon. According to European VPAM vehicle armoring standards outlined by Aurum Security, 9mm Parabellum can be safely resisted by some of the lightest grades of protection, VPAM 2 or 3. These, and the equivalent B1 and B2 standards they supersede, are “rarely used in armoring a security vehicle.”

For reference, armored limousines that car companies sell to VIPs rank way up at VPAM 9, meaning they can withstand armor-piercing high-velocity rifle rounds. Meanwhile, something like the U.S. Presidential limo, “The Beast,” likely ranks at VPAM 13 or higher based on armor thickness and composition. That’s about where a real armored personnel carrier ranks.

Put simply, if you buy a Cybertruck, you’re not buying the wheeled bunker Musk suggests it to be. You’re not even buying what many professionals would consider an armored vehicle. Instead, you’re buying a vehicle whose bulletproofing will in some scenarios be even more dangerous to its occupants when it’s overcome by a projectile.

When a bullet penetrates a sheet of metal, such as a car door, it doesn’t part it like a Ziploc bag. It tears through, bringing fragments of metal with it, if not itself disintegrating as it exits. These fragments were found to significantly increase the severity of wounds in a 2003 study conducted on pigs.

Metal jacketing of the sort often found on intermediate rifle rounds like 223 Remington and 5.56 NATO (popular calibers for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle) can reduce fragmentation, but the study found it didn’t eliminate it. Also, the experiment was conducted using metal H&K G3 magazines (likely thin, stamped aluminum) rather than 3mm of steel. The more material a bullet has to displace, the more it probably takes with it.

Of course, the risk of rifle-induced fragmentation wounds is diminished by a National Institute of Justice study suggesting that mass shootings (a form of wanton violence your armor-eager Cybertruck buyer no doubt fears) are committed with rifles approximately one-quarter of the time. But there’s a more significant trend to observe: 70 percent of mass shooters personally knew at least some of their victims. This is mirrored in homicides as a whole, with 64 percent of murderers knowing their victims, according to Statista.

Tesla Cybertruck

If the Tesla Cybertruck is supposed to stop a stray bullet, it might hold up. If the goal is protecting against a premeditated attack though, odds are it won’t suffice. If someone has it out for a Cybertruck driver personally, the perp probably isn’t gonna ambush their target while they’re driving their famously “bulletproof” pickup. They’ll wait for a more opportune moment. Or if they’re really desperate, they’ll go up a caliber to compensate.

If you consider being shot in your car significant enough of a risk to warrant spending money to prevent it, then go buy a real armored vehicle instead (one where you can actually roll the windows down). They can be made from pretty much any car these days, so you don’t have to drive a Cybertruck. If you still want Tesla’s truck for its other capabilities though, that’s fine. Just know that other aspects of its design might also not quite be as advertised.

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