The truth about ride-sharing with your Tesla

Source: Tesla Motors

It’s been a few days since Tesla Motors announced that every car they make from now on will have all the hardware needed for full autonomy (level 5 as defined by the SAE — current Tesla vehicles are at level 2 autonomy). They have deservedly gotten a ton of press about it — most of it good, some of it questionable.

A lot of people seem to be reacting to the following statement that now appears on the Tesla website:

“Please note also that using a self-driving Tesla for car sharing and ride hailing for friends and family is fine, but doing so for revenue purposes will only be permissible on the Tesla Network, details of which will be released next year.”

Basically, if you want to send your self-driving Tesla out into the world to give people rides and make money on your behalf, you’ll only be able to do it on Tesla’s service. Quite a lot of ink has been spilled about this sentence, with varying degrees of sensationalism, as journos breathlessly rush to report on Tesla’s growing competitive stance against ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. Here are just a few examples:

Yikes. Y’all need to chill.

Near as I can tell, it seems like Jameson Dow @ Electrek and Jonathan Gitlin @ Ars Technica were the first to report this, and everyone else just jumped on it. I should also note that the initial headline at Ars was far stronger (“Tesla bans customers from using autonomous cars to earn money ride-sharing”), but to their credit they dialed it back pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the damage had been done.

Predictably, a lot of people are freaking out now, because “Tesla is taking away your rights!” and “they're dictating how you use your property that you paid for!” and “you can’t buy a Tesla and use it to deliver pizzas autonomously!” Because using your car to deliver pizzas autonomously is the American dream, folks.

Let’s just take a breath and think this through, shall we?

Imagine it’s 2018, self-driving cars are legal, you find yourself the proud owner of a Tesla Model Whatever with the self-driving software turned on, and you want to send it out to give people rides via Uber. How would that work?

Well, the ideal hypothetical scenario for you would be to be able to click a few buttons in the Uber app to make your car available to their fleet. Then you could sit back and watch money magically show up in your bank account, while they use your car to give people rides until you need it back. In order to do that, Uber would need privileged access to know where your car is, send navigation commands to it, and control the door locks so people can get in without the key.

In order to do THAT, Uber (and Lyft, Fasten, Autonomous Pizzas 4 U, etc.) would need Tesla to provide a mechanism to grant that level of remote access to your car, either via software loaded on the car or through commands issued over the internet. Can you imagine how big of a security nightmare that would be? Even if Tesla is able provide that mechanism safely, how much do you trust the people over at Autonomous Pizzas 4 U to protect their access to it? Let’s put on our tinfoil hats for a second, and wonder how long it will take for the Russian government to hack Yandex (Russia’s version of Uber) and use a roving autonomous Tesla fleet to run down political enemies and people who posted a mean late night tweet about Putin that one time.

So forget remote access by 3rd parties then, because that’s not happening. The only way for Tesla to minimize risk to their customers while allowing their cars to accept remote commands is to control the whole stack, top to bottom. And because autonomous ride-sharing is “The Future” and Tesla wants to be part of it, the only way they can do that safely is to build their own ride-sharing network.

The other option would be for you to be much more hands on with the rides your car is providing. You’d need to sit on your Uber app, constantly accepting requests and sending your car around to pick people up and drop them off. Except that doesn’t work either, because in order for Uber to send the right requests to you, they need to know where your car is. And since they can only track the location of your phone, your phone needs to be in the car. Which means you need to be in the car. Which means you might as well sit in the drivers seat and direct the car yourself (even if you’re letting the car do the driving), because what reasonable person wouldn’t? Tesla hasn’t “banned” this, because that would be crazy.

“Okay,” you say, “but what about that exception Tesla put in there about autonomous ride-sharing being fine for friends and family? How does that work?” Glad you asked. Here’s the thing: the people over at Tesla actually aren’t dicks! They know that your car belongs to you. You’re going to want to share it and all its autonomous goodness with your family and friends, and they don’t want to block that.

I would bet that you’ll be able to give your spouse, boyfriend, sister, roommate, etc. privileged access to your car to via the Tesla app on your phone (or maybe they just sign into the Tesla app using your credentials). Then they’ll be able to use their phone app to summon the car from wherever they are. If Tesla were especially generous, they could even let you use the app to direct your car somewhere (say, your parents’ house or the grocery store) to pick someone up. But they would probably need a spare key or the app to unlock the doors and get into the car.

You could argue, of course, that Tesla likely isn’t losing much sleep over the impracticality of allowing its customers to contribute cars to 3rd party ride-sharing fleets. That’s probably true. But you could also argue that Tesla sees the writing on the wall, and building a Tesla-owned network for autonomous ride-sharing is a necessary next step to remain viable as the personal transportation industry evolves, without putting their customers at risk.

So relax, everybody! Tesla isn’t trying to take over your car, or ban you from sharing your car on a competitive ride-share platform, or use contract limits to guarantee them a revenue stream from your ride-sharing activities, or avoid liability if someone gets hurt, or protect the jobs of pizza delivery people. They’re just setting reasonable expectations, based on practical limits of the technology and prudent security concerns.

Thank you. Since you’ve made this far, here is a GIF of a not-so-bright dad trying to offer his child to the autonomous Tesla gods.

Disclosure! I don’t work for Tesla, and I don’t know anyone who does. I have not spoken to anyone at Tesla about the content of this piece, so everything you see here is based on publicly available information and my own personal opinion. I don’t own a Tesla vehicle, but I do own some Tesla stock and I have a reservation for the upcoming Model 3.