Tesla Fleet Company Struggles Raise Questions About Robotaxi Plans

Tesla wants to operate huge fleets of robotaxis, but human-driven Tesla fleets are already struggling to keep the cutting-edge but fragile cars running. 

Tesla Posts Large Quarterly Loss
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Tesla's "Autonomy Day" presentation showcased a typically ambitious plan for the electric vehicle maker's future, in which the company would operate fleets of its off-lease vehicles as fully autonomous robotaxis with each car earning an estimated $30,000 in gross profits per year. Though questions remain about Tesla's ability to even develop the self-driving technology needed to make this dream a reality, there are signs of trouble with the plan among companies operating human-driven fleets of Teslas today. Assuming Tesla can develop the technology for unprecedented autonomy using its relatively meager sensor suite, are the more prosaic aspects of Tesla's vehicles in fact well-suited for fleet duty?

There are signs that the brand's premium sports sedans may not be well-suited for high-utilization fleet applications in the news this week, starting with a Chinese ride hailing company's extremely public demand for compensation from Tesla. The Global Times reports that Shenma Zhuanche, a premium ride hailing firm headquartered in Sichuan Province, has rented time on three Times Square billboards with which to air its grievances with Tesla who supplies 278 of the vehicles used in Shenma's fleet of high-end vehicles. According to Shenma, some 20% of its Teslas experienced electromechanical malfunctions that caused the company direct economic losses of nearly $1 million since it started buying Teslas in 2016.

Shenma is demanding that Tesla repair its allegedly defective vehicles, compensate it for associated losses and admit that its cars have quality problems. The company alleges that Tesla's problem is not simply that its cars have quality problems, but that its after-sales service is "unsatisfactory" and that on average each repair keeps vehicles out of the fleet for some 45 days according to Technode. The company says it hopes to give Tesla the opportunity to address these shortcomings.

Another example of a Tesla fleet company experiencing challenges keeping its vehicles operating comes from The Netherlands, which has been a prime market for Tesla fleets due to major tax incentives for electric vehicles. The company EC-Rent, which had crowdfunded a small fleet of Teslas for rent costing between €249 and €349 per day. According to a notice on the company's website (and confirmed in a subsequent tweet), EC-Rent has experienced some of the same issues as Shenma:

"Unfortunately we have had to stop our activities.

Due to increasing technical defects and the lack of a fast delivery of parts from Tesla, we had to halt half of our Teslas in our rental fleet from mid-December. Since this is no longer tenable and a solution does not seem to be within reach, our activities are currently discontinued. We are investigating the possibilities for a restart (possibly in a different form). We will know more within a few weeks. Unfortunately, we cannot accept bookings until that time, not even on models other than the Teslas."

A third example comes from Sweden, where mestmotor.se reports that Umeå Eltaxi has filed for bankruptcy blaming in part the Tesla Model S that it had operated as part of its all-electric fleet. Vice President and marketing manager Mohammed Al-Nasser had some harsh words for the California automaker, which line up with what Shanma and EC-Rent have said and implied about using its vehicles in fleet applications: 

"Nothing has worked. Tesla does the worst cars. It has been too much wrong, for poor quality and when the closest workshops are in Stockholm, the costs have become unreasonably high. In the end, we did not see any opportunity to continue with these cars but chose to put the company into bankruptcy at its own request, "

Another small Tesla taxi company also went bankrupt last year due to the challenges of operating a fleet of Teslas, causing its owner to lose the home he had mortgaged to start the "One Hundred Percent Electric Company" or "OHPEC." Though Bernard Brommel of Auckland, New Zealand didn't mention the reliability and repair time issues that other struggling Tesla fleet operators did, he blamed the high cost of Tesla's cars, the challenge of marketing a new company, and issues with charging as the reasons OHPEC went under. With free chargers increasingly busy and others costing a kickback to use, recharging times stretched to some 90 minutes including the time to drive to one that was available to commercial operators like OHPEC. A Quebec-based electric taxi company that operated 10 Teslas as part of its fleet also went bankrupt earlier this year, laying off 450 drivers after receiving nearly CAD$10 million in government grants

This rash of bankruptcies and challenges among Tesla fleet operators may come as a bit of a surprise, given that there has been a good deal of stories at pro-Tesla outlets looking at fleet operations with rose-colored glasses. One warm-and-fuzzy story by Electrek about a Quebec City Tesla taxi operator conveniently failed to mention that its Model S drive unit was replaced multiple times by Tesla, a fact gleaned through a follow-up interview by Jalopnik. Another such positive story, by Clean Technica, failed to mention that the discontinued Tesloop shuttle replaced an unknown number of tires (which Tesla forum reports suggest the heavy, powerful cars tear through at a rapid rate) and needed a complete battery replacement until commenters pointed these inconvenient facts out. 

Outlets with an explicitly pro-EV mission have highlighted these feel-good stories in order to promote the long-held view that electric cars fundamentally have less maintenance costs than internal combustion vehicles, due to their simpler drivetrains. This argument has a lot of sound logic behind it, but it seems that Tesla's unique circumstances may not provide much evidence for it. Tesla has traditionally targeted high-end consumer sales, and for these buyers a Tesla's performance and prestige makes up for its practical shortcomings like high tire consumption, reliability problems and delays in repair times. These shortcomings not only stem from Tesla's inexperience as an automaker and lack of emphasis on developing a corporate culture focused on quality manufacturing, its practice of continually updating its designs may delight private owners but it also creates logistical challenges in terms of parts availability and in turn causes long delays for repairs.

The reality is that the very things that make Teslas so appealing to premium vehicle buyers make them deeply challenging to operate as taxis. In a competitive business that largely centers around achieving high utilization rates for every vehicle, both charging time and repair delays can be company-killing challenges. The power and performance that sets Teslas apart from the competition have little relevance to taxi duty, which emphasizes rugged durability and maximum uptime. Unless there is free charging, high repair capacity nearby and considerable government incentives, as is the case with the famous fleet of Tesla taxis at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (which does not publicize repair or maintenance data for its Teslas), turning these expensive, and relatively fragile cars made by a company whose service network is stretched thin by private customers alone remains a huge challenge.

 Tesla has mastered the ability to capture the public's imagination with technology and concepts that make the shared, electric and autonomous future seem like it's already arrived, that ability is channeled toward boosting sales of its high-end performance vehicles rather than building vehicles that are designed for fleet duty. As I wrote in my preliminary analysis of Tesla's "Autonomy Day" vision, Tesla is trying to squeeze the square peg of its relatively traditional high-end vehicle business into the round hole of autonomous shared fleets:

Rather than building dedicated robotaxis for fleets, Tesla has turned the robotaxi vision into a pitch to private owners: buy our premium sports sedan today, and tomorrow it will earn you money. Because of this distributed approach to fleet ownership, Tesla can't take the geofenced Level 4 approach that others have, forcing it to take on far more challenges by promising that its cars will drive themselves in any and all conditions. At the same time, all this has to happen with a sensor suite that was designed to keep costs to a level that keeps the vehicle in reach of private customers. It also requires Tesla to promise that full self-driving capability will be available soon, so that people will purchase cars today in hopes of it earning its keep as a robotaxi before they want or need to buy a new car.

The problem is that these decisions that are driven by the need to protect and boost Tesla's current business are not the right ones for the eventual robotaxi business. Purpose-built robotaxis will be more robust and easily-serviced than Tesla's premium sports sedans, they can use more expensive and capable sensor suites since they will be bought by fleet companies not individuals, and they can be developed around specific geographic areas thus reducing the number of potential edge cases and challenges. Tesla is trying to portray these characteristics as the product of poor approaches or technological shortcomings by other AV developers, but they are in fact the products of a more focused, ground-up development approach with higher safety standards. Tesla's cheaper yet more ambitious vehicles are the product of its existing business model, not some unique technological advantage that nobody else in the space has figured out yet.

In reality, the robotaxis of tomorrow are likely to be designed like futuristic versions of the Ford Crown Victoria: simple, rugged, reliable, built consistently over long periods of time so that parts remain available and affordable, and with interiors that are designed for shared use as well as to take a beating in punishing fleet duty and be easily refurbished. The London Electric Vehicle Company may not be making autonomous vehicles yet, but its stunning revamp of the classic London black cab shows how you might start designing a vehicle designed for true fleet duty. 

Premium like a Tesla, but with huge space for groups of passengers, a rugged interior with a wheelchair ramp and braille instructions built in and a drivetrain and other components from Volvo's proven parts bin, the LEVC cab is not only built as a ground-up electric cab, it's one that is focused on a very specific market. Like Level 4 autonomous vehicles, the LEVC cab was designed for one city and though it is being exported abroad for both taxi and commercial delivery duty its main goal is enabling London to transition to a 100% zero-emission cab fleet by 2023. As a result, they are designed with durability, rider experience and low running costs in mind

As Horace Dediu often reminds us, every vehicle has a job to do, and Tesla's do the job of providing high-end, high-performance, environmentally-friendly status symbols to tech executives quite well. But that's a very different job with very different needs than the prosaic business of commodity mobility that taxis provide, whether currently in human driven form or in the future as robotaxis. As autonomous drive technology improves, we'll see even more specialization with not only Level 4 autonomous drive technologies tuned for specific markets but even vehicles designed and built for the unique needs of individual markets. These businesses will take time to develop, but they will happen. In the meantime, the struggles of Tesla-operating taxi companies prove once again that rushing into the business model of the future too soon can be as much a recipe for failure as entering it too late.