When will Elon Musk’s driverless car claims have credibility?

EMIL LENDOF/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, GETTY IMAGES, ISTOCK
EMIL LENDOF/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, GETTY IMAGES, ISTOCK

Summary

After Musk sets a date for the robotaxi reveal, Tesla investors are left parsing what’s near term and what’s aspirational.

Elon Musk is at it again, promising new developments with Tesla’s robotaxi.

For almost a decade, the chief executive has been telling customers and investors that the electric carmaker is on the cusp of achieving fully driverless cars.

Yet nothing. So, is this time any different?

Investors are grappling with understanding what’s aspirational and what’s at-present as Musk teases plans to reveal Tesla’s long-promised robotaxi in August. His announcement came after a Reuters report he was giving priority to work on the robotaxi over development of the company’s low-price consumer car intended for human drivers.

An autonomous car is complicated technology, to say the least. But there is a way we can know that he really stands behind it as ready: when Tesla takes liability for crashes that occur under its vehicles’ control. Or, put another way, when Musk is willing to put his money on the line with our safety.

That should be the red line. Otherwise, it is just glorified cruise control.

“Unless Tesla says humans do not have to pay attention and humans are not driving and humans are not responsible for what happens when they’re not driving and when they’re not paying attention, then Tesla does not have self-driving," said Bryant Walker Smith, an expert in laws around automated driving at the University of South Carolina law school.

It can be hard to make sense of all the different developments around Tesla and Musk’s autonomous driving ambitions. In addition to promising a robotaxi this summer, the billionaire has been aggressively pushing the automaker’s driver-assistance system on new Tesla buyers while also defending against litigation that it doesn’t work as promoted.

Despite Musk’s having predicted he would have one million robotaxis on the roadways in 2020, Tesla has yet to launch a vehicle that doesn’t require a driver to monitor its operation.

Waymo, Alphabet’s driverless car unit with vehicles transporting passengers around select cities without anyone sitting behind the wheel, is responsible for the liability in a crash. German automaker Mercedes-Benz, too, has said it is responsible for its limited-autonomous vehicles, owned by customers, when those vehicles are driving themselves.

For Tesla, the automaker’s driver-assistance system FSD, or Full Self-Driving, is a building block to an autonomous car.

Musk has suggested Tesla will someday essentially be able to flip a switch, sending out software updates to its cars that enable them to drive themselves. Theoretically, Model 3 sedans and Model Y sport-utility vehicles as well as Tesla’s next generation lower-cost vehicle will be able to be deployed as on-demand taxis.

“You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost," Musk wrote in his master plan for the company in 2016 that laid out his vision for autonomous vehicles.

Last year, Musk justified cutting car prices to help boost sales on the gamble that Tesla would be more profitable in the future with a larger fleet of robot vehicles running its yet-released autonomous software.

On social-media platform X, Musk recently amplified a Tesla investor theorizing that the newest version of FSD was giving Tesla renewed confidence that its driverless car ambitions were on the right path.

“Maybe Elon and the team have been so impressed with how good FSD 12 has performed and were maybe thinking they should be shifting even more resources to the Robotaxi/FSD effort," Sawyer Merritt, the Tesla investor, concluded.

Tesla shares are down 31% this year through Friday on disappointing deliveries and concerns that the company’s meteoric growth is tapering off.

Some investors have been frustrated that the latest version of the drivers-assistance system, known as FSD v12, hasn’t generated more enthusiasm for Tesla’s stock, arguing it should be adopted enthusiastically by more owners and generate new revenue.

The FSD upgrade to Autopilot, which the company says enables the vehicle “to drive itself almost anywhere with minimal driver intervention," is $12,000 up front or $99 a month as a subscription. The monthly fee was lowered this past week from $199.

Yet FSD isn’t as its name implies—even Tesla tells users they are responsible for their vehicles and to maintain attention. Essentially, if you get into a crash, Tesla points to you as the driver. “Full Self-Driving features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous," Tesla says on its website.

Most car companies offer their own version of driver-assistance systems.

For Tesla to see a greater share of buyers upgrading to FSD, the company would need to tell buyers “FSD drives itself and they can spend time sleeping, reading, playing videos instead," Gary Black, a Tesla investor, tweeted. “To do that [Tesla] would have to shift the liability from the driver to the manufacturer, as Waymo has done."

The limits of Tesla’s driver-assistance system have been on display amid litigation against the company. Tesla settled a high-profile lawsuit this past week brought by the family of a California man who died in 2018 while using Autopilot.

Mercedes-Benz in some parts of the U.S. offers an automated driving feature that can control the car in certain situations, allowing the user to watch videos or read emails. But it can’t handle all conditions, meaning the user can’t sleep and has to be ready to take over if needed.

“Where you really need to draw a line is whether the responsibility resides with the driver or if the responsibility resides with the car," Ola Källenius, Mercedes’s CEO, told analysts. “That is a fundamental dividing line technologically, safety-wise, and also from a product liability point of view."

When asked if Tesla would take liability like Mercedes, Musk last year brushed aside the question, and instead referred to a string of lawsuits Tesla faces over its driver-assistance system from customers.

“There’s a lot of people that assume we have legal liability—judging by the lawsuits," Musk told analysts in October during a public earnings call. “We’re certainly not being let off the hook on that front, whether we’d like to or wouldn’t like to."

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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