Tesla isn’t planning on building dedicated robotaxis to create its ride-sharing fleet, Tesla has turned the robotaxi vision into a pitch to private owners: buy our premium sports sedan today, and tomorrow it will earn you money.
Using a “Tesla Network” ride-hailing app, customers will be able to put their Teslas to work when they’re not using them. They predict of a $.18 cost per mile, the ability to earn $.65 per mile in gross profit, which could turn into $30,000 a year. Let’s not forget this around the idea of self-driving technology being good enough to drive in any condition in less than two years.
This distributed approach to fleet ownership means that Tesla is suddenly playing a very different game to everyone else on the market. Waymo is working on a fleet of robotaxis in Pheonix, it launched its service in a 100 mile (160km) area. Meaning, it’s using geofencing to fill the gaps in their self-driving capabilities. Tesla can’t take the geofenced Level 4 approach that provides location data and HD maps of the area. They have to take on something far more challenging as they now committed to cars that drive themselves in any and all conditions.
Musk has also built in a rough economic model for the middle-class public he’s aiming at, buy now and the car will start to pay for itself, we’ll even be able to retrofit existing Tesla’s with this technology. All this has meant to be powered by an affordable sensor suite designed to keep costs down.
Tesla’s robotaxi problem isn’t hardware or logistics, it’s the business model
The idea of a robotaxi fleet has been kicking around for three years, this is the first time we’ve heard official plans. The problem is Musk’s primary motivation is to keep the business running not to create a genuine fleet of robotaxis. We can see how the concept is highly sellable. I buy a Tesla and it immediately starts to pay for itself.
Purpose-built robotaxis will be industrial and more robust, they’ll also be easier to maintain than the car of a private customer. A robotaxi fleet would use more expensive and capable sensors since they will be bought by companies, not individuals. Waymo is developing services for specific geographic areas which will make them safer reducing the number of unknown variables.
Musk commented that companies who relied on geofencing weren’t building real autonomous drive. He tried to make it seem like it was a bad approach or that his competition had inferior technology and capabilities. The reality is that these products are simply more focused and are being built from the ground-up with higher safety standards.
Edward Niedermeyer over at The Drive noted that: “Tesla’s cheaper yet more ambitious vehicles are the product of its existing business model, not some unique technological advantage that nobody else in the space has figured out yet.”
Tesla’s claims are confusing the consumer
This is actually my biggest concern with Musk’s wild claims of having self-driving cars this year. The name “Full Self Driving” is just branding, and it is not representative of the car’s real capabilities.
When activating Navigate on Autopilot, a warning screen pops up on the center display that reads, “Navigate on Autopilot does not make your Model 3 autonomous. Like other Autopilot features, the driver is still responsible for the car at all times.” Drivers who take their hands off the steering wheel risk disengaging the feature. The hand over when Autopilot stops working is also very abrupt, the car makes a sound and just stops driving for you, it’s very alarming. If you haven’t been paying attention to the road you have no contextual awareness about what’s happening, which I find very dangerous. Other manufacturers have a warning period before the car gives up control of the car.
Musk’s comments today have the potential to further muddy the waters with respect to how self-driving cars are discussed in public. Now that the automotive industry has been woken up by Musk’s innovative attitude the industry is at a place where they’re shaping how this new mobility will shape our future. It shouldn’t be about stock prices or trashing your competition, it should be about how we adopt these new technologies quickly and safely.
During Autonomy Day, an investor asked about who would be liable in the event of an accident by one of the Teslas in the robotaxi program. “Probably Tesla,” Musk answered, hesitantly. “I think the right thing to do is to make sure there are very very few accidents.”
I hope we really are on the same page.