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A Tesla self-driving car?


It began with reports on a job ad at Tesla for an ADAS engineer to work on self-driving systems, and now there is a declaration from Elon Musk of a desire for a semi-automated car in three years. Musk says he expect the car to be "90% automated" which I will interpret as meaning it does highway driving. It is not said if this is the same sort of highway driving found in products like Cadillac's "super cruise" or similar offerings from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and others -- which requires the driver be alert and watching, or a much harder full cruise ability that allows the driver to do other things, like read. I'm pretty sure it's not a car that can run unmanned -- Musk correctly feels that is a whole lot extra.

My reaction to this is mixed, in that there are things that make sense and don't make sense.

On the plus side:

  • Tesla is a great car company, and as a brand new one, perhaps the one most capable of not thinking like a car company. This is a big advantage. There is already a great culture of car innovation there.
  • Tesla has a focus on great and novel car experiences, regardless of price, and this fits in well with that. Their customers will not be bothered by the initial high cost of the hardware.
  • Their cars are already pretty much drive-by-wire and easy to adapt.
  • If Tesla does decide to work with Google (the articles say they will not) there is already a strong friendship between the two CEOs
  • Even in the best car, there are certainly lots of roads where you would rather not do the driving.
  • With inductive charging (or some fancy plugging-in robot) it's possible the car could do some self-parking and more importantly, self-recharging.

On the negative:

  • Tesla's cars are hugely fun to drive. While I believe for every car there value in having it drive itself on many roads, I would have to say the Teslas are the cars for which this is the least true! So it's not that one would not appreciate self-driving in one's Tesla, but it's just that you would appreciate it even more in almost all other cars.
  • Electric cars are not currently suitable as taxis that drive all-day, though Tesla has talked about battery swap, which would solve that issue. I doubt they mean to sell them for that market, as they would not be self-delivering in any event.
  • Teslas are unjustifiably expensive. Well, unjustifiable to other than early adopters or those who just want the best at almost any price. That may change as batteries drop in price, though.
  • If this is just super-cruise where you must pay attention, it's nice, but not a revolution. Not yet, anyway.


There's good reason to believe that the variable cost of a robotaxi will be lower even than the variable cost of a privately owned vehicle. That is, it will be cheaper to use a robotaxi to drive to work than the car you already own and insure. As you've written, robotaxis can achieve this by being much smaller, more gas efficient, cheaper to insure, etc.

Once that happens, there'd be a mass exodus to robocars, because there's no expensive transition to them - you just pay the three dollar fare to take them to work every day. Given that you'd have this huge new fleet of cars, mandating that they be electric only, or at least the short-haul ones, could deliver a reduction in pollution and an improvement in air quality. Currently, it takes several years from when a regulation is implemented to notice a difference; most of the change is happening with uncommon models like Tesla anyway. Considering that robocars are not on the roads in numbers yet, but stand to be, this is a great opportunity for transitioning the national fleet towards cleaner vehicles.

Considering what Tesla has achieved and the trajectory of batteries, and the volume involved with robotaxis, electric could be competitive by then. Even if it weren't strictly speaking, the negative externalities of gas cars may give it the edge.

I do indeed believe in the long term the taxis do not run on gasoline, or at least most of them don't. One likely earlier fuel is natural gas, which is greener and much cheaper. It is almost as green as electricity -- in fact greener if the electricity comes from coal, a bit less green if the electricity also comes from natural gas, not as good if the electricity is renewable. (Up to you what to think if the electricity is nuclear.)

Electricity is also quieter.

Electricity has to overcome some barriers, which I outlined in another post. You want either cheaper batteries or battery swap so the cab can run more hours in a day, though there are some potential options for cabs that run in morning rush, recharge and do evening rush, but you need other cars to do the noon peak. (And yes, there is actually a peak at noon almost as large as the rush hours.)

> On the negative: Tesla’s cars are hugely fun to drive.

If self-driving function can be easily switched ON and OFF.. then who cares! :)

Well, it is true that the early adopter (and that's who buys the Tesla) does just want the latest and best of everything, and so the match may make more sense. If we had more "rational" buyers who were judging in detail the value and cost of features, one would say that "If I primarily want the car to drive itself, I would rather that a huge amount of my money not go into making it fun to drive." I would want the money to go into other things.

However, it is correct to say the Tesla buyer is not saying, "I only can spend $90,000 so let's make sure it's optimally spent." She's saying, "I will spend what it takes to get the most amazing car."

Tesla is a small company. The make a few cars. Today they have only one model. So the answer is either yes or no: to have autonomous driving function or not. No compromises. Unlike car manufacturer with hundreds of thousands or millions of cars which have a wider scope of solutions, just because they are big..

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