Tesla Teasing a Robotaxi Must Leave Customers Scratching Their Heads

What ever happened to turning cars purchased years ago into autonomous vehicles that would earn owners $30,000 a year?

A Tesla event touting one product wouldn’t be complete without Elon Musk teasing a next one.

While marking the initial delivery of Tesla Semi trucks last week, Musk offered a first, vague glimpse of a product he divulged was in the pipeline back in April: a dedicated robotaxi.

There wasn’t much to glean from a computer-generated white sheet over a rendering of a vehicle. But looks are the least of what’s mysterious about this product for Tesla owners.

What ever happened to the cars customers bought years ago being an eventual software update away from becoming robotaxis that would earn them $30,000 in gross profits a year? That was among the claims Musk made during Tesla’s Autonomy Day in April 2019.

“We expect to have the first operating robotaxis next year,” Musk said then. “With no one in them, next year.” On the same timeline, he predicted there would be more than 1 million Teslas using a “feature complete” system that would operate so reliably, customers wouldn’t need to pay attention.

Three and a half years later, zero Teslas are operating as robotaxis. Customers who have paid as much as $15,000 for a product the company markets as Full Self-Driving, or FSD, still need to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take over at a moment’s notice.

There were signs Tesla’s inability to deliver on Musk’s self-driving statements were catching up with him before last week’s tease. In August, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles accused the company of misleading consumers about its FSD and Autopilot systems. A customer in the state sued in September, accusing Tesla of deceptive marketing and seeking class-action status for other car owners to join his legal fight. In October, Bloomberg was among news outlets that reported the US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have been investigating Tesla’s self-driving claims.

“Mere failure to realize a long-term, aspirational goal is not fraud,” Tesla said in a Nov. 28 motion to dismiss the California customer’s complaint.

Maybe so, but Tesla owners have to be asking themselves just how long-term this effort will be. The same fan Musk engaged with on Twitter about an impressive FSD trip this week posted a sobering warning 12 days earlier: “If you’re trying Tesla Full Self-Driving Beta for the first time, it’s important to remember that it will at some point randomly try to kill you. This is a when, not an if.”

Actually delivering a robotaxi would be an impressive but not unprecedented feat. Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors-backed Cruise have been operating driverless ride services in select cities.

While Waymo and Cruise have a lot to prove with respect to scaling their businesses, Musk’s bet that he could reach critical mass faster by iterating his way from advanced driver-assistance systems to full autonomy isn’t working. Tesla developing a dedicated robotaxi amounts to a tacit admission this is the case.

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