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Elon Musk Drops More Hints About an Autonomous Tesla Mobility Service

By Evan Niu, CFA - Apr 21, 2016 at 5:00PM

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One of these days, you might be able to summon an autonomous Tesla to drive you around.

Just like another Silicon Valley neighbor company, Tesla (TSLA -6.42%) is a ship that leaks from the top. CEO Elon Musk is known for dropping cryptic messages about what the company is working on during live interviews as well as on social media. For the most part, investors already assume that the electric automaker is working on some type of ride-sharing mobility service, and Musk isn't doing much to quell the speculation.

Quite the contrary: Musk is adding fuel to the fire.

So much for not talking too much about it
Electrek reports on a keynote address that Musk gave today in Norway regarding future transportation solutions. When asked about possible ways to improve public transit in urban environments, Musk suggested that Tesla is working on a mode of autonomous transport that could drop people off directly at their destinations instead of at stations or bus stops.

We have an idea for something which is not exactly a bus, but would solve the density problem in intercity situations. I think we need to rethink the whole concept of public transport and create something that people are actually gonna like a lot more. I don't want to talk too much about it.

Musk vaguely referred to "a new type of car or vehicle" that would be key to this model, adding, "There's a new type of car or vehicle that I think would be really great and actually take people to their final destination and not just to the bus stop."

If at first Musk won't talk, try, try again
This isn't the first time that Musk has dropped hints. Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas has put Musk directly on the spot on conference calls on numerous occasions. Here's from the August 2015 call:

Jonas: First question, Steve Jurvetson was recently quoted saying that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told him that -- if by 2020 Tesla's cars are autonomous, that he'd want to buy all of them. (laughter) Is this a real, I mean, forget the 2020 for a moment, but is this a real business opportunity for Tesla? Supplying cars to ride-sharing firms, or does Tesla just cut out the middleman and sell on-demand electric mobility services directly from the company on its own platform?

Musk: That's an insightful question.

Jonas: You don't have to answer it.

Musk: I don't think I should answer it.

Just a few months later on the November 2015 call, Jonas wouldn't let the topic die, literally asking the exact same question. But this time he squeezed a little more information out of Musk:

Jonas: Elon, just thinking longer-term here. Assuming Tesla establishes itself as a leader in autonomous transport, do you see a business case for selling autonomous cars to ride-sharing firms, or can Tesla cut out the middleman and offer on-demand electric mobility services directly from the company's own platform?

Musk: (Laughter) I think we would have to say no comment.

Jonas: Elon, it's kind of unusual for you to punt on strategic questions of a long-term nature. Is this a dumb question? Or a funny question?

Musk: I think it's quite a smart question actually, but still no comment.

Jonas: Why? Okay, I won't antagonize. Let's move on. It's just, it's just odd because you normally -- I've never heard you punt like that. That's all, but in any case. Is it because of a competitive sensitivity, or is it because the concept itself is just too in flux?

Musk: I think there's a right time to make announcements. This is not that time. And nor is our strategy fully baked here. So for us to state what it would be -- it's not fully baked. So there's no -- we would prefer to announce something when it's -- when we think we've got the full story understood.

Jonas: So saying, it's not fully baked, does it -- implies there's something in the oven, but just?

Musk: Okay. We kind of need to move on.

It doesn't take too much imagination to recognize the high-level idea, where Tesla offers a mobility service of autonomous, connected, electric cars that transport people directly. But the devil lies in the details.

What would the vehicle look like? How safe would autonomous vehicles be? Is the regulatory environment receptive? What does the revenue model look like? Can Tesla handle the ongoing logistics for fleet management and operation at this scale?

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