Is Elon Musk hiding something big in plain sight?

Tesla Model X
© Tesla

Invisible Chauffeur at your service

We've known for a while that Tesla is aiming for fully autonomous vehicles down the road - they are already on the verge of rolling out some self-driving features such as highway autosteer - and some have even theorized that Tesla might be working on a kind of Uber-like service with self-driving electric cars driving around to pick people up and drop them where they need to go.

Tesla Snakebot autochargerTwitter/Tesla/Screen capture

What if Elon Musk pulled a fast one on us and announced some of the building blocks of that 'invisible chauffeur' service, but didn't tell anyone what those features were truly meant for. A little misdirection, like any good magician, if you will...

Tesla AutopilotTesla/Promo image

This is Gavin Sheridan's theory. Looking at the Model X announcement, he couldn't help but notice how many of the standout features worked together to make the vehicle ideal for a very specific thing:

All of these feature were built for one reason — a self driving future combined with an entire self-driving mobility platform. The Model X was built to be either the ultimate self-driving taxi, or the ultimate human/self-driving rental car — or both. Or as Musk almost laughingly hinted during the presentation — an invisible chauffeur will be doing all the work.

1. A front door that opens when you approach it and closes itself when you get in — because it’s fun? No. A self-driving car that arrives to collect you and opens its doors when it detects your proximity based on your watch/mobile device nearby (plus the sensors).

2. Electronic seats that move forward to make the lives of parents easier at the touch of a button? No. A software update will allow the seats to configure themselves for passengers arriving to get into a car where the doors open themselves (Uber - but you tell it how many people and the car gets ready for the group).

3. Ease of ingress and egress for humans in the Model X because of Falcon Doors? No. The doors don’t exist for frustrated parents — they’re doors designed for a self-driving taxi/rental mobility platform.

4. More storage under the rear seats because you need more of it, and because you can (down to the space that electric cars give you)? Yes. But when Musk uses the word “stow” I think airline. And when I think airline I think passengers. And when I think Model X I think taxi — with lots of room for your bags — with no driver in the front seat.

5. A snake that extends to charge your car because it saves your lazy ass from having to get out and plug it in yourself? Yes, but if the car is driving itself it’s going to have to be able to reverse into a station and commence charging — without the presence of a human.

When taken all together, these features would make the Model X by far the best driverless vehicle out there. The foundation is already the excellent Model S, but these innovations would make the X so much more effective as the backbone of a kind of distributed transportation platform.

Model X presentationTesla/Screen capture

There's a moment in the Model X launch presentation where Musk has a family of 7 roll on stage (3 adults and 4 kids, including 2 in baby-seats) in a fully loaded X, with both the trunk and the front-trunk (aka frunk) full of luggage. This kind of versatility will no doubt appeal to large families, but nowadays these are getting rarer. What it would also be great for is those time when you need to call a driverless Tesla-cab for a ride to the airport with all your luggage, or when you join a driverless carpool to go to work each morning along with many other coworkers, or when a group of drunk people need a ride to come back from the bar at night, etc.

Model X Falcon doorsTesla/Screen capture

Of course, none of those things is a smoking gun that Tesla is truly working on a Uber-like driverless Tesla-cab service, and the company has refused to discuss it in the past:

At a panel last month, [Tesla] board member Steve Jurvetson made passing reference to a comment from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick who said if Tesla made 500,000 autonomous cars by 2020, he'd buy them all.

During the call, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas asked Musk "is this a real business opportunity for Tesla, supplying cars for ride-sharing firms or does Tesla just cut out the middle man and sell on demand electric mobility services directly on its own platform?"

Musk responded with an excruciating six seconds of silence, before sheepishly saying Jonas' was "an insightful question."

"You don't have to answer it," replied Jonas.

"I don't think I should, uh, answer it."

But these Model X design decisions certainly point in that direction.

And if they do decide to go that route, there are some interesting questions to be answered: Will Tesla own a fleet of driverless vehicles, or will the EVs be rented by Model X owners who allow their cars to work for them when they are not using them, with Tesla taking a cut of the revenue? It seems like the latter model would make more sense, and combine the innovations of Uber with Airbnb.

Time will tell... In the meantime, here's the prototype of the snakebot in action:

Via Gavin Sheridan

Tags: Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Transportation

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