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Electric Vehicles

Elon Musk Is Self-Driving Tesla Into the Ground

His kingdom for a robotaxi.

Elon Musk and a Tesla.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Tesla

Five years ago, the world met the Model Y. Tesla officially unveiled its smaller crossover in March 2019 and, the next year, began to sell the car in staggering numbers. The Model Y helped Tesla tighten its grip on the electric vehicle market. By 2023 it had displaced the Toyota Corolla as the world’s best-selling car of any kind.

It’s not easy to follow up a massive success. What’s worse is having no plan at all — or being chronically unable to stick to one. That’s where Tesla seems to be amid yet another shakeup at the company.

This week, Tesla announced it would lay off 10% of its worldwide staff, while some influential leaders are leaving of their own accord. The news comes as Tesla has just announced a sales dip and prognosticators wonder whether we’re entering an “EV winter” where more buyers choose hybrids instead. Now, this is neither the first time Tesla has run into difficulty nor the first time the EV maker has commenced mass layoffs to cut costs. Somehow, though, this time feels different.

During the Model’s Y’s ascendance over the past half-decade, Tesla’s path forward to the next thing has turned into a mess of distractions and left turns. Musk became obsessed with and then purchased Twitter, a boondoggle of a deal that clearly distracted him from his car company. The oft-touted Roadster supercar has yet to materialize.

More importantly, the long-promised $25,000 car appears to be dead (or at least tabled indefinitely). Musk had initially indicated the affordable Tesla would finally arrive next year, leaving the company to endure a single gap year without a new vehicle. But Reuters reported that Tesla has killed the idea in part because of competition overseas from ultra-cheap Chinese EVs, and while Musk responded to the report by saying Reuters was “lying,” he’s done nothing to indicate the “Model 2” is anything but dead.

Meanwhile, the only new-ish vehicle in the Tesla lineup, the Cybertruck, is stuck. Tesla stopped deliveries of the steel beast for an unknown issue, rumored to be related to sticky accelerator problems, and shortened production shifts at the factory. And while it’s possible to squint and see a case for the Cybertruck, I’ve written here numerous times that Tesla’s big mistake wasn’t putting that eyesore on the road. Instead, it was focusing the company’s attention on something so adolescent and absurd at a moment when it could have tightened its grip on the EV market, and given American EV drivers some interesting new options, by rolling out new cars that look more like something the average American would want to buy.

So what is Tesla up to? In a follow-up tweet after he attacked Reuters, Musk suddenly announced that he would reveal the company’s “robotaxi” on August 8. This would be Tesla’s completely self-driven vehicle. Musk’s favorite claim about the car is that it would earn its owners passive income by driving itself around, picking up and dropping off passengers as a kind of dystopian Uber.

The dream certainly fits in with Musk’s oeuvre. The CEO clearly still sees Tesla as a lean startup that moves fast and breaks things, not an established car company that would do something so expected and bland as building a perfectly acceptable three-row family crossover to compete with the Kia EV9. Compare that to the way other companies born of Silicon Valley began to act once they got big. Apple may have engaged in a long, fruitless dalliance with the self-driving car, but ultimately, it knows its bread is buttered by iterating on everything in the iPhone ecosystem. Facebook may have changed its name to Meta to highlight its mission to create the metaverse, but it still leaned into the revenue engines it built or acquired, like Instagram or Whatsapp.

It’s fine to tell yourself a story about who you want to be. And to give Tesla the benefit of the doubt for a moment: sure, maybe it will be the one to crack full autonomous driving. But in practical terms, that tech is not close to reality, and Tesla’s version of it has encountered its fair share of bugs and been sued over crashes.

(In the spirit of “robotaxi,” the company just offered a month-long free trial of Full Self Driving to Tesla drivers. I will certainly not be using it with a young child in the car. The brand has also mandated that potential drivers be given a demo of FSD during test-drives, seemingly to hammer home the idea that Tesla is just a few steps away from having the car drive you home while you take a nap.)

In the meantime, you have to wonder just what Tesla is going to sell to humans who want a plain old electric car. It recently completed a refresh for the Model 3, and while the new one looks a little like next year’s iPhone — the same product with a facelift and a couple new features — you’d expect to see a similar update coming to the Model Y.

It’s important to remember: Despite the ill wishes from his online haters, Musk isn’t exactly dead in the water. Tesla sold 220,000 Model 3s in America last year and nearly 400,000 Model Ys, a huge lead over competitor EV from legacy car brands. Those companies are hitting the same EV headwinds as Tesla this year, while golden child Rivian is still at least a couple of years away from selling its exciting smaller SUVs. Tesla is the established giant in electric cars, even as it looks in the mirror and sees an upstart.

Yet with Cybertruck landing with a thud, and no obvious follow-up in the works, Tesla is in danger of blowing that huge lead. It may want to transform into a software company, and to earn back some of Musk’s Iron Man sci-fi cred by realizing the self-driving car. But at this moment, it feels a little like an electric car company that forgot it makes cars.

Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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