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Can Elon Musk’s robotaxi plan help Tesla owners make $30,000 a year?

Can Elon Musk’s robotaxi plan help Tesla owners make $30,000 a year?
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Tesla’s aggressive (perhaps unrealistic) goal to launch a robotaxi network in 2020 was revealed by CEO Elon Musk on Monday as the company discussed plans toward a self-driving future.

In this March 2, 2019 file photo, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla speaks during a news conference in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Tesla’s Uber alternative has been in the works for a few years. Musk announced the project as part of a broader “master plan” for the company in 2016.  (John Raoux / AP)

Under Musk’s strategy, the electric car maker will enable owners to add their autonomous driving-capable vehicles to a Tesla ride-sharing app, which he described as a combination of Uber and Airbnb.

“From our standpoint, if you fast forward a year — maybe a year and three months, but next year for sure — we’ll have over a million robotaxis on the road,” Musk told an audience on Monday.

“The fleet wakes up with an over-the-air update; that’s all it takes,” he said.

At face value, the promise that Tesla owners can make $30,000 per year adding their cars to the Tesla Network sounds great — especially as an increasing number of Americans search for side gigs and supplemental income.

On a slightly deeper level, the idea of having a stranger hop behind the wheel of your hi-tech car raises more questions than Musk or anyone else from Telsa has answered.

Is my car really ready to drive itself?

That’s yet to be seen.

The CEO is very optimistic that Tesla cars on the road today are an over-the-air update away from being fully self-driving capable.

“By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware, feature complete, at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention,” Musk said.

However, so far, Tesla has been officially positioning its Autopilot system as more of an advanced driver assistance feature that requires the driver’s attentiveness.

Motorists can use it to help with parking and making lane changes, but Telsa has yet to show its cars at Level 4 Autonomy where the vehicle can perform all driving tasks, while monitoring the driving environment itself, and the driver could, say, take a nap.

The Partners for Automated Vehicle Education industry group advise on Twitter against over-promising on the state of autonomous technology.

Who’s liable for accidents?

At least to start, the cars used in the fleet will be equipped with steering wheels and pedals, so the stranger behind the wheel might have some level of control.

But who’s responsible if something happens to the car?

It’s unclear.

“The Tesla Network robotaxi plans seemed half-baked, with the company appearing to either not have answers to or not even considered pretty basic question on the pricing, insurance liability, or regulatory and legal requirements,” said Cowen’s analyst Jeffrey Osborne in a note on Tuesday.

In places where there aren’t enough shared cars, Tesla would provide its own dedicated vehicles, including Model 3, S and X taxis, so clearly the company would take care of the maintenance on those cars.

Will Tesla’s taxi network be tax deductible?

Drivers for ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are independent contractors, so just about any money spent on the gig becomes a tax-deductible business expense.

Along with the water, gum and snacks for passengers, any car tech you may pay for is also tax deductible, according to TurboTax.

Tesla didn’t say whether this would apply to owners of its currently semi-autonomous cars. Perhaps owners could write off pricey software upgrades. In February, the Palo Alto-based company increased the price of its Autopilot package by $5,000 and added a few new features.

Will robotaxis actually be ready next year?

Only time will tell.

Tesla’s Uber alternative has been in the works for a few years. Musk announced the project as part of a broader “master plan” for the company in 2016.

Still, that timeline seems ambitious, and Musk has admitted that he is often fairly criticized for not meeting deadlines.

“Only criticism, and it’s a fair one, (is that) sometimes I’m not on time,” Musk said, laughing. “But I get it done, and the Tesla team gets it done.”

In 2018, the House of Representatives passed autonomous vehicle legislation H.R. 3388 to create uniform standards for self-driving cars.
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