An image of a Cybertruck-inspired Tesla robotaxi concept was revealed in the new Elon Musk biography by Walter Isaacson that launched Tuesday.
The two-door, two-seater, “Cybertruck-like” compact vehicle is complete with angular edges and what looks like a fingerprint-inducing stainless steel finish. And while its unclear if this will ever actually be built — the world is still waiting for the actual Cybertruck — the photo confirms that engineers were influenced by the wedge-shaped design.
A second image in the book displays Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, standing next to an “early robotaxi.” It’s little more than a cardboard cutout, again displaying two seats, as well as room behind them for luggage. It’s not clear how early that design was, but the photo is in a section of the book that introduced Autopilot (Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system) and Musk’s life between 2014 and 2016.
Photos of the robotaxi images in the biography began popping up on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, on Monday before the book officially launched.
Isaacson has been leaking excerpts and information from his biography of Musk over the past few weeks to drum up hype for the book. The biographer, who has been embedded in Musk’s life for years, also revealed that Tesla will build its first next-generation electric vehicles — including both a $25,000 car and a robotaxi — in Texas rather than at the upcoming Gigafactory Mexico, according to an exclusive from Axios. The factory will use Tesla’s “unboxed process,” revealed at the automaker’s 2023 Investor Day in March, that allows factory workers to work on separate sections of the vehicle and bring them together at the end for a final assembly.
Both vehicles will have a futuristic design similar to the Cybertruck.
“When one of these comes around a corner, people will think they are seeing something from the future,” Musk said during a secretive meeting in September 2022, according to Axios.
The robotaxi will be built from the ground up without pedals or a steering wheel, despite objections from engineers who pushed for a safer design concept on the basis that Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) software wasn’t there yet, according to excerpts from the book. FSD is Tesla’s upgraded advanced driving assistance system that can automate some driving tasks in city and highway environments, but is not yet a fully autonomous system. It relies only on cameras, rather than a suite of sensors including lidar and radar, to collect information about its environment, as well as Tesla’s Dojo supercomputer to make quick decisions.
Musk apparently stood his ground. He told his designers in an August 2022 meeting, “Let me be clear. This vehicle must be designed as a clean robotaxi. We’re going to take that risk. It’s my fault if it fucks up. But we are not going to design some sort of amphibian frog that’s a halfway car. We are all in on autonomy.”
Current federal safety standards prohibit the mass-production of vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to announce a new rule-making on that in September.
Other companies are coming to market with purpose-built autonomous vehicles, like GM’s Cruise and Amazon’s Zoox. Those vehicles are built to be large and boxy, with ample room inside and four to six seats. Tesla’s robotaxi, by contrast, might only seat two, which could cut Tesla out from mass market appeal.
Mass production by 2024?
In April 2022, Musk shared plans to bring a dedicated robotaxi with no steering wheel or pedals to market by 2024. That would mean Tesla would need to develop, test, verify, produce at volume and commercially launch a robotaxi service within two years. In California, where there’s been the most regulation and AV activity, Tesla does have a permit to test driverless vehicles with a driver in the front seat, but not without one.
Of course, Tesla might decide to launch its robotaxi service in its new home state, Texas, where the laws for deploying AVs are much more lax.
Tesla hasn’t been exactly clear on how it plans to bring robotaxis to market, though. Musk has promised for years to turn Tesla vehicles that people own today into their own robotaxi via its FSD software. Musk has described the potential service as something like Airbnb for cars, where owners could potentially earn extra income by dispatching their cars to give others rides.
FSD, and Tesla’s earlier ADAS version called Autopilot, has come under fire from Tesla owners, safety regulators and federal agencies for a range of issues, including false advertising and promoting vehicle capabilities that don’t yet exist. Musk recently demoed the software in a live video, during which time he had to take over the wheel to stop his vehicle from lurching into an intersection during a red light.