Musk makes self-driving technology Tesla’s costly new calling

The CEO says by the middle of next year, 1m Teslas will be on the road that are fully capable of driving themselves

SAN FRANCISCO • Tesla Inc’s calling used to be bringing affordable electric cars to the masses. Elon Musk is now ripping up the script, vowing to pair self-driving technology with a sharing service that will make it crazy for consumers to buy other cars.

The CEO said by the middle of next year, one million Teslas will be on the road that are fully capable of driving themselves. During an hours-long investor day presentation focused on autonomy, Musk said customers will be able to put their cars onto a shared network of robotaxis, which will be able to get around without a human inside.

With Tesla facing mounting concerns about demand for its electric cars, Musk says both the company and its customers will reap major monetary benefits once self-driving robotaxis are ready for prime time (Pic: Bloomberg)

Even for Musk, 47, who’s never shied away from outlandish predictions, the timeline is hugely ambitious. Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, widely thought to be a leader in the autonomous space, has shied away from letting its autonomous vehicles roam without safety drivers. But with Tesla facing mounting concerns about demand for its electric cars, the CEO said both the company and its customers will reap major monetary benefits once self-driving robotaxis are ready for prime time.

“The fundamental message that consumers should be taking today is that it’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Musk said on Monday at Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. “It will be like owning a horse in three years.”

Cash Impact

The catch for Tesla investors is that all this is going to be costly in the near term. When asked how much autonomous technology is costing Tesla, Musk responded: “It’s basically our entire expense structure.”

Whereas Tesla has said in the past that it expects to be cashflow positive in every quarter beyond the first three months of this year, Musk now said the goal is to be cashflow neutral, while it’s building up a fleet of self-driving vehicles that will make their way into the robotaxi service.

“Between now and when the robotaxis are fully deployed throughout the world, the sensible thing for us is to maximise the number of autonomous units made and drive the company toward cashflow neutral,” Musk said. “Once the robotaxi fleet is active, I would expect to be extremely cashflow positive.”

On Monday, Tesla shares ended the day down 3.8% at US$262.75 (RM1,085). While they briefly rose as much as 0.4% in late trading, they ended the post-market session little changed. The stock has declined 21% this year.

Network Plan

For years, the promise of Tesla hinged on bringing a US$35,000 Model 3 sedan to the mass market. Earlier this month, Tesla made it impossible for customers to order that version of the Model 3 online. Customers who choose to lease a Model 3 aren’t going to be able to buy the car at the end, as leased cars will be ultimately used in the company’s network.

When one analyst told Musk that it sounded like Tesla was making a massive balance-sheet commitment to autonomy and asked about the company’s financing strategy, the CEO dropped a hint that a fundraising may be in the offing.

“It would be difficult to talk about financing rounds in this venue,” he said. “I think we’ll make the right moves. I think we’ll make the moves you think we should make.”

Roughly 100 analysts and investors attended Tesla’s event in person and took Model 3 test drives afterward.

“It was a curated route, and it did a great job,” said analyst Gene Munster of Loup Ventures. “It showed me that Tesla has made a lot of progress. If you were there in person, it was hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. They’ll capitalise on this to raise money, and that de-risks the business.” — Bloomberg