Tesla's new master plan includes electric semis, autonomous buses, solar + storage

What's next after you build the world's most sought after electric car? World domination, of course.

The media, and the general public, seem to have a love/hate relationship with Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. Either he's a genius and the company is going to change the world, or he's a rich guy with big dreams of luxury products for other wealthy people. Perhaps that's because it's easy to criticize a company with audacious goals yet with relatively few of its products actually on the street, but it's also hard not to cheer on the efforts of a forward-thinking company like Tesla, which aims to bring an integrated clean energy/energy storage/transportation solution to the masses, even if the economics don't quite work yet for the average person.

Ten years ago, Musk wrote about the "secret master plan" for Tesla, which began with building a low-volume expensive electric car, then using the profits from that to develop a medium-volume EV at a lower price, using the money from that car to create "an affordable, high volume car," and to then "provide zero emission electric power generation options" (solar). And now that Tesla seems to making serious progress on this master plan (although we have yet to see the affordable high volume EV go into production), including the potential acquisition of SolarCity, Musk has just released his latest iteration of his master plan on the company blog in an article titled Master Plan, Part Deux.

In a nutshell, Tesla's plan for world domination looks like this:

  • Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
  • Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
  • Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
  • Enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it

An ambitious bulleted list is easy to come up with, but as they say, the devil is in the details, and that's where the rubber meets the road for Tesla's next phase.

With the SolarCity renewable energy pipeline potentially becoming part of Tesla (and with SolarCity building its own solar module 'gigafactory' in Buffalo, NY), and the Tesla Gigafactory getting set to mass produce residential battery storage units (Powerwalls), when it all comes together, homeowners and businesses may have a one-stop-shop for their renewable electricity needs. And considering how quickly prices have been dropping for both solar arrays and for home battery storage solutions, moving toward renewable energy at home or work may soon be more of a cost-saving decision than a climate- and environment-saving decision.

Create a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app.

Tesla's first vehicle, the Roadster, was truly a rich man's toy, and as such was subject to a lot of skepticism and derision, but the company's product evolution is moving toward a more affordable vehicle, in part through the technology developed via production of the Model S and Model X, and on to the very desirable Model III with its potential $35,000 price tag. But to truly change the clean transport paradigm, Tesla is looking to a few additional options, such as a pickup truck, an electric big rig or semi (which is said to be under development), and a "high passenger-density urban transport" solution (perhaps in the form of autonomous electric buses).

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses.

Autonomous technology for cars, trucks, buses, and taxis may hold one of the keys to the clean transport revolution, and while much has been made of a few recent Tesla Autopilot accidents (which may have more to do with the drivers' lack of attention than the software), it's clear that many tech and car companies are on the autonomous vehicle bandwagon, and with good reason. Autonomous driving tech could enable greater flexibility for transit operators, from buses to taxis to 'carsharing' companies, as well as cutting costs and optimizing energy demands through efficient route selections and other avenues.

According to the recently released 2015 NHTSA report, automotive fatalities increased by 8% to one death every 89 million miles. Autopilot miles will soon exceed twice that number and the system gets better every day. It would no more make sense to disable Tesla's Autopilot, as some have called for, than it would to disable autopilot in aircraft, after which our system is named.

That brings us to the last point of the master plan, in which Musk states that your Tesla could make money for you when you're not using it, by employing its self-driving capabilities to join a "Tesla shared fleet" that others could rent on demand, as opposed to just being parked 90% of the time, which is what most cars do. This may be the most difficult part of the plan, even as it seems to be the simplest, because it would require a total rethinking of our idea of car ownership. If you rent your Tesla out via a shared fleet, gone are the days of keeping all the stuff you think you might need in the back seat, or being able to jump in your car and leave at any time, or knowing that your vehicle will be exactly as you left it when you return to it (which begs the question of how insurance and liability issues would be handled for these types of personal vehicle rentals).

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. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

Obviously, like any audacious goal, there are multiple speed bumps to get over, and perhaps more than a few previously unseen roadblocks to navigate around, so the Tesla plan for world domination (or at least clean transport and energy) isn't necessarily a short-term and fast-tracked one, but considering how behind-the-times other car companies seem to act, and how slow they are to change, there's a lot to cheer for in this master plan from Elon Musk.

Tags: Solar Energy | Tesla Motors | Transportation

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