Elon Musk says Tesla robotaxis are coming — and soon

Elon Musk has a really accelerated timeline for his proposed Tesla robotaxis.
Elon Musk has a really accelerated timeline for his proposed Tesla robotaxis.

Image: Jae C Hong/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Look out, Uber. Tesla CEO Elon Musk plans to turn the electric car company’s fleet of vehicles into a massive autonomous ride-hailing network. 

Musk laid out his vision for the self-driving Tesla network — which he expects to be in operation as early as next year — at a Monday investor event focused on autonomous driving. It’s not the first time he’s floated the idea; he tweeted about Tesla robotaxis earlier this month.

But his timeline, and much of the other details about the service, should be taken with huge helpings of salt. Competitors that have been testing self-driving taxis for awhile couldn’t pull off what Musk is suggesting in the same timeframe. 

Musk spelled out a not-so-distant future where Tesla owners could put their cars to work (and earn money) when not using the cars — no humans needed. All Tesla cars are made today with full self-driving capabilities ready to go once government regulation catches up, Musk said.

Musk compared his proposed service to an Uber or Lyft, but with autonomous cars and only available on the Tesla network. Tesla would take 25 percent to 30 percent of the payment for each ride ordered, similar to the cuts taken by other ride-hailing apps. Musk put the cost of including your car on the network at 18 cents per mile.

In places where owners aren’t sharing their vehicles on the ride-hailing network, Tesla would offer dedicated robotaxis. When pressed for specifics about where this will happen and how soon, Musk kept it vague, but said cities like San Francisco would be able to offer the service — once everything is approved. Other pesky details like liability issues were casually discussed, with Musk assuming Tesla would be to blame in an accident since it’s their self-driving system.

His plan sounds like it’s built on accelerated, and possibly unattainable, timelines — in true Musk style. Waymo and GM’s Cruise are barely hitting less ambitious benchmarks for their own self-driving taxi services. Waymo launched a small, safety-driver monitored car service in the Phoenix area late last year. Cruise says it will have something similar in parts of San Francisco by the end of this year. 

In Musk’s mind, the robotaxis will also shape car design — within the next two years he predicts cars won’t need steering wheels or pedals, just a computer screen.

Look ma, no hands! No steering wheel, either!

Look ma, no hands! No steering wheel, either!

But until then Musk sees purchasing a Model 3 with full autonomy for about $38,000 as a money-making purchase, not a depreciating asset. “It’s financially insane to own anything other than a Tesla,” he said.

He further predicted that 1 million cars will have full self-driving tech available and ready by mid-2020. But available and ready and in use are very different things. 

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