The tech world has a love for Messianic figures, usually high-profile CEOs of darling companies whose words are hung upon and combed through for hidden meaning, as though they had arrived from above to our venture-capital-backed prophet on tablets of stone. In the past it has been Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, now it seems to be Elon Musk who has received this treatment. Whether his companies are launching a used car into space, shooting things down tubes in the desert, or synchronised-landing used booster rockets, everybody’s talking about him. He’s a showman whose many pronouncements are always soon eclipsed by bigger ones to keep his public on the edge of their seats, and now we’ve been suckered in too, which puts us on the spot, doesn’t it.
Your Johnny Cab is almost here
The latest pearl of Muskology came in a late April presentation: that by 2020 there would be a million Tesla electric self-driving taxis on the road. It involves a little slight-of-hand in assuming that a fleet of existing Teslas will be software upgraded to be autonomous-capable and that some of them will somehow be abandoned by their current owners and end up as taxis, but it’s still a bold claim by any standard.
Here at Hackaday, we want to believe, but we’re not so sure. It’s time to have a little think about it all. It’s the start of May, so 2020 is about 7 months away. December 2020 is about 18 months away, so let’s give Tesla that timescale. 18 months to put a million self-driving taxis on the road. Can the company do it? Let’s find out.
Oh, the Red Tape
The first hurdle he would have to overcome in order to achieve the goal is not a technological or capacity one, but a legal one. Is it legal to have a robot taxi service? The simple answer to that question is almost certainly no with laws in their current form as in the vast majority of territories such things are still only authorised for use in trials rather than commercial service. But let’s suspend that belief for a while and imagine he could change it with some legal wizardry. The answer then becomes extremely complex, depending upon where in the world you live and how you define a driverless taxi.
The USA for example — which we would imagine to be his largest potential market — enacts this legislation at state level, so his market becomes a checkerboard of different requirements. In all but a few states the taxi cannot even be truly driverless, instead a safety driver has to sit behind the wheel ready to take over in the event of a malfunction. Hardly a driverless car when you still have to pay a driver.
Are the Cars Up to the Task?
Assuming Tesla can find enough places in the world to deploy a million robo-cabs legally, can they do the job? We’ll take a big gamble because we’ve done the same above in giving legal authorisation to run them and assume that for the purposes of Musk’s 18-month timeline they can, but it’s safe to say that self-driving technology can still go wrong and cause accidents. There have been reports of Teslas on Autopilot mode failing to see trucks and attempting to drive straight through them, and also incidents involving pedestrians. Autonomous vehicles have caused fatalities, and it would be foolish to imagine that there would be no more following the introduction of a million more cars.
Can They Make That Many Cars In That Time?
So we’ve made a couple of leaps of faith, and arrived at a point where autonomous taxis can legally and effectively ply their trade. We need to place up to a million of them on the tarmac depending on how many existing cars upgrade, and we only have 18 months. Can that be done?
The Tesla company has several plants including the famous Gigafactories producing batteries, Powerwalls, and solar panels, but the cars are produced in a former General Motors plant in Fremont, California. Their total vehicle production from 2012 until the end of 2018 is reported as being in the region of 530,000 cars, with between 80,000 and 90,000 cars per quarter produced in the final two quarters of 2018. If production remains at that figure then they can expect to produce another 540,000 cars in the 18-month taxi timeline, so to produce their million they should expect to at the very least double their output.
It does not sound impossible to double production were there investment to expand their factory to that level, but of course it fails to account for any Teslas that would be sold as ordinary customer cars. To avoid taking their cars off the market and producing only taxis they would have to at least triple production simply to maintain their late-2018 sales, and increase it further were they to expect to sell any more. Meanwhile their inventory of unsold taxis would not be bringing in the usual sales revenue, so would need to be put to work with paying taxi passengers in short order. We’re not auto industry experts here at Hackaday, but to us those figures sound optimistic at best. Perhaps they could instead put their drivetrains in a car from another manufacturer such as those from Mercedes which are already subject to a technology agreement with Tesla, but that manufacturer would also have to ramp up production at short notice with little immediate cash return.
Our conclusion therefore is that unless Elon Musk has managed to secure the services of Harry Potter to magically enhance his production process (and a lawyer a bit better than Lionel Hutz to ease his way in the minefield of autonomous vehicle regulation) we won’t be seeing a million self-driving Tesla taxis by the end of next year. It’s very likely that self-driving taxis will eventually feature in our futures (after all, not far from where this is being written they’ve even been tested in public) and they may well have Tesla badges on them. But “one million” rolls off the tongue we thing that’s why this is another piece of Muskology. Let’s go back to watching SpaceX boosters landing perfectly on their pad at Cape Canaveral while we wait out a more reasonable timeline on those taxis.