Tesla promises robotaxi future as it investigates Shanghai fire mystery

23 Apr 2019

A Tesla Model S, believed to be the same model as the one seen in the Shanghai CCTV footage. Image: Tesla

While it looks to get to the bottom of a mysterious fire in one of its cars, Elon Musk has promised to create a huge fleet of robotaxis.

CCTV footage emerged in recent days of what appeared to be a Tesla car that spontaneously combusted in an underground car park in the Chinese city of Shanghai. While verification of the video has yet to be confirmed, it showed a Tesla Model S car parked between two other vehicles erupting into flames with no people inside.

The video clip, spread on the Chinese social network Weibo, soon spread globally and has now drawn a response from the company. According to the BBC, the company posted to Weibo to say: “After learning about the incident in Shanghai, we immediately sent the team to the scene last night.

“We are actively contacting relevant departments and supporting the verification. According to current information, there are no casualties.”

Meanwhile, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, has promised to take on ride-sharing giant Uber by turning a large number of Tesla vehicles into ‘robotaxis’.

According to Business Insider, the plan would be for customers to sign up to the Tesla Network platform through its app. After that, the car’s autonomous systems would let the car drive off to pick up and deliver passengers to wherever they want to go.

Speaking at an event, Musk said that by 2020, Tesla aims to have more than 1m robotaxis on the platform, starting with the US. However, he admitted that there will be a number of regulatory limitations to getting the robotaxis on the road.

Musk also made a number of predictions, including that the Tesla robotaxis would be significantly cheaper than a typical ride-share today at almost $0.18 per mile versus between $2 and $3 seen with competitors. He also claimed it would be financially lucrative to Tesla owners, claiming it could earn them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the vehicle’s lifetime.

“The fundamental message that consumers should be taking today is that it is financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Musk said. “It will be like owning a horse in three years. I mean, fine if you want to own a horse. But you should go into it with that expectation.”

A number of voices have spoken out against Musk’s claims, however, with Carnegie Mellon electrical and engineering professor Raj Rajkumar saying that the Tesla founder is selling a “pipe dream” to people. “I think it’s basically overpromising, which is typical of Elon Musk,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic