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Even Elon Musk Can’t Get a Robotaxi These Days

His recent earnings call makes clear that few think his promised million-taxi fleet is real-world

July 24th (2019) was earnings call day for Tesla Motors (stock symbol: TSLA). For those who don’t follow these sorts of things, publicly-traded companies must deliver a quarterly statement of their earnings, known as a 10-Q (the annual statements are known as 10-Ks). Most companies use these deadlines as opportunities to talk to investors about the state of the company, its big pushes, and its future plans. These events, known as “earnings calls,” are held after trading hours. But for Tesla, the star vehicle of the show was missing.

Just months ago, Tesla did a capital raise for two billion dollars. The premise was that, within the next year, its vehicles would have full self-driving capability to the point where the vehicles could operate as a giant robotaxi fleet when their owners weren’t using them, thus providing cash both to the owners and to Tesla.

Chief executive Elon Musk has doubled down on this promise, continually stating that, because Tesla cars can later be used in his robotaxi service, they will appreciate in value, not depreciate.

Yes, you heard that right. According to Musk, no longer will your car decrease by thousands of dollars when you drive it off the lot. If you believe him, sometime next year, you will be able to click a button on your car and turn it into a taxi service, earning you money while you sleep. Because customers will be clamoring for this vehicle that makes them free money, so the theory runs, the price will increase. This has always been Musk’s personal dream but, starting with the recent capital raise, both the story and the timeline have been the Tesla party line for the last few months as well.

However, on the earnings call (transcript here), talk of robotaxis magically disappeared. The robotaxi network was never even mentioned. There was some talk about full self-driving (a term on whose meaning Tesla has equivocated for some time). But no timelines, features, or concrete expectations were provided.

Considering that Tesla Motors had grabbed two billion dollars of investor money just a few months ago on the promise of robotaxis coming soon, its silence on the subject in the recent earnings call is deafening.

Curiously, the questions from investors seemed to dodge that subject, too. I get the feeling that even Musk’s faithful followers are beginning to doubt the hype and are instead focusing on the core business aspects. Just last year, Elon dismissed regular investor-type questions as boring (“No ‘bonehead’ analyst questions please”). But now those questions seem to be all that is left.

Nobody believes that Musk’s self-driving make-money-while-you-sleep taxi service is going to happen. All that is left is a car company that loses half a billion dollars on its highest sales quarter in company history.


Also by Jonathan Bartlett on the real world, present and future, of self-driving cars:

Who assumes moral responsibility for self-driving cars? Can we discuss this before something happens and everyone is outsourcing the blame?

Self-driving vehicles are just around the corner… On the other side of a vast chasm

Guess what? You already own a self-driving car Tech hype hits the stratosphere

and

When machine learning results in mishap The machine isn’t responsible but who is? That gets tricky

Featured image: Taxi stand/1st Gallery, Adobe Stock


Jonathan Bartlett

Associate Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is the Director of Technology at New Medio, where he focuses on technology strategy and implementation for several global organizations. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Even Elon Musk Can’t Get a Robotaxi These Days