How would you like to take a taxi for the price of bus fare? Not the actual cost of bus fare, but bus fare subsidized by state, local and federal governments. And what if the taxi was more like a limousine, a movie theater, a small hotel room? You could chat with friends, watch a program, or take a refreshing nap - significant quality of life improvements for commuters.
Elon Musk promises this and more with the upcoming Tesla Robotaxi. In April, the world's wealthiest Twitter troll took time away from his social media siege to announce a change in plans and an anticipated 2024 rollout.
Initially conceived in 2016, Tesla aimed to organize a fleet of taxi cabs consisting of modified standard Teslas with full self-driving capability. The fleet would include customer-owned Teslas loaned to the service, allowing Tesla owners to earn money back on their car while not in use. Tesla also planned to repurpose vehicles that had just come off-lease, saving the fleet 40 percent of vehicle acquisition costs.
But for undisclosed reasons, Musk has transitioned to a different concept.
At a ceremony inaugurating Tesla's new Giga Texas plant in Austin, Musk announced that his company would instead produce a discrete Robotaxi vehicle that would be "quite futuristic-looking."
The design would eliminate elements necessary for a human driver, like the steering wheel and pedals, and concentrate on amenities riders would enjoy, like face-to-face seating, fully reclinable seats, sliding doors, and an easy-to-clean interior.
According to Musk, the overriding design consideration is that the vehicle is "fundamentally optimized to achieve the lowest fully considered cost per mile." That's good news for consumers and a shot across the bow to Tesla competitors like Zoox, Cruise, and Waymo, who are also working on self-driving taxi concepts. Musk believes the low-cost Tesla achieves for its taxi service will be a major driver of company growth.
While Musk's plan is bound to appeal to consumers, especially those who can't afford their own Teslas, it has a few analysts scratching their heads.
Writing for Forbes.com, Brad Templeton wonders why Musk would give up all the advantages of his original "smart plan" to produce vehicles that essentially mimic his competitors. Repurposing leased Teslas and using owned Teslas on loan would have substantially reduced fleet costs, allowing Musk to offer service at a price point his competitors could not have matched.
Templeton suggests the impetus for the switch is a technical problem Musk has failed to resolve: whether Tesla can achieve full self-driving capability using a camera-only system.
Musk says he still believes camera-only operation is feasible; his strategy is constantly aimed at improving Driver Assist to bring about Full Self Driving. However, Tesla's competitors believe Full Self Driving is only possible with assists from lidar and radar.
Is Musk abandoning the conversion of off-lease Teslas because he knows those vehicles can never be made fully self-driving? If so, Musk could be making a necessary retreat and selling it as a frontal assault.
Templeton also notes that low-cost fares require low-cost vehicles, with perhaps room for one or two passengers. That is not the Tesla brand.
Nevertheless, Musk's vision, as always, is bold. He's right to think the future belongs to the vehicles he imagines. Who wouldn't want to take their minds off the road and add two hours to their day? Read a book on the commute to work. Snooze on the way home. If he's successful, Musk could improve the quality of life for commuters while drastically reducing emissions from conventional autos stuck in traffic. It's the sort of win-win that gets us excited for the future.