Tesla’s connected, driverless bus will transform the image of public transport

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Grimy spaces packed full of strangers, chewing gum stuck under the hand rail, sticky stain dribbled down the aisle… Bus and train travel in Britain today can rarely be accused of being glamorous.

But for many, not least in London where surely only idiots and travelling salesmen own cars, bus and train travel is just the everyday, clammy reality that bookends a day at work.

Thankfully, the technologists are on it, and yesterday Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that the next stage of his ‘master plan’ will include urban transport.

The PayPal mafia member isn’t afraid to publicly outline his lofty dreams, as he did a decade ago on the first iteration of his big vision.

Then he promptly goes out and makes them happen.

As early as 2001, he’d pledged substantial cash towards space travel.

He’s now testing rockets almost every week as the CEO of his own space company, SpaceX, founded in 2002.

Slightly more low key is his new plan to build on the work already being done on Tesla’s range of (almost autonomous) electric cars by adding public transport and logistics options.

“Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year…

“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.

“It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.”

This idea won’t be great news to bus drivers, but earlier this year the American Association for the Advancement of Science had already given the role just 25 more years to live.

We have to expect more industrial action as global employment potentially dips below 50 per cent by 2045 – now is the time to start planning for ‘next’.

Musk also outlined plans to connect all Teslas on the road through one app so owners can make money by loaning out their car in the 90 to 95 per cent of time they aren’t driving it.

Although it’s technically possible to do this with existing cars today, the benefit, it appears, comes from the autonomy removing the need for the loan driver to be insured.

“The fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not,” he said.

Tesla will also operate its own taxi fleet in cities, taking companies like Uber square on.

Musk says much of Tesla’s focus right now is on improving the factories that build its current range of cars, “designing the machine that makes the machine – turning the factory itself into a product”, he calls it,

Creating efficiencies in this area is key to ensuring Musk meets one of his outstanding goals from his first ‘master plan’ – to go from delivering low-volume, luxury electric carx, to creating a Tesla for everyone.

If he’s going down the data-driven factory path, he might be keeping an eye on how Google is deploying its DeepMind AI to better control energy-hungry data centres.

Musk is hoping to acquire and merge the solar panel company he also founded, SolarCity, sooner rather than later, so he can combine its tech with Tesla’s Powerwall home solar battery to produce a “beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works”.

“One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app” is the idea. But the company’s other investors are still lukewarm on the idea, not least because of the recent death of a Tesla driver who was using the beta autonomous function.

In a refreshingly future-focused statement from a tech billionaire, Musk said of his updated mission:

“The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what ‘sustainable’ means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing – it matters for everyone.”


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