For most people, owning a Tesla is a dream. With the price tag for a 2017 Model S $83,000, Elon Musk has positioned his vehicle as a status symbol.
Yet one company has been working to put more Californians in the driver seat — as well as the passenger and back seats — at an affordable price.
Founded in July 2015 by then-16-year-old Haydn Sonnad, Culver City-based Tesloop, licensed by the California Public Utilities Commission, offers shared rides between cities in Tesla’s all-electric, semi-autonomous vehicles. Although Tesloop is not officially affiliated with Tesla, Sonnad said his group has a "positive relationship" with the automaker.
Since Teslas require charging, Tesloop operates based on fixed routes between cities, with pick up and drop off destinations near charging stations. Currently, routes include Los Angeles and Palm Springs, LA and San Diego, and Palm Springs and Las Vegas.
With one-way plane tickets between LA and Las Vegas averaging about $90, and Greyhound buses offering limited space, Tesloop is appealing to anyone who is looking for a sustainable, affordable transportation option, Sonnad said.
Starting at $29 a seat, travelers can be shuttled between set locations by Tesloop drivers, called “Pilots.” All Teslas are stocked with drinks and snacks, and riders can take advantage of free Wi-Fi, phone charging, heated seats, music, and neck pillows.
However, the main attraction is Tesla’s autopilot feature, which Pilots activate as soon as they’re on the highway. The feature, which is activated for the majority of the trip, helps create a stress-free and safer journey.
Sonnad estimates Tesloop — which consists of a fleet of nine Model Xs, two Model 3s, and one Model S —has given rides to about 25,000 passengers so far.
No Pilot Necessary
Earlier this year, Tesloop began offering the option to rent an all-electric Tesla Model 3 or Model X for its LA and San Diego, and LA and Palm Springs routes. Dubbed “Cruiser,” the new service offers one-way Model X rentals for $79 or a Model 3 for $49.
With the Cruiser option, customers can bring along family and friends for the trip at no extra cost.
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Since there’s no Tesloop Pilot controlling the vehicle, new Cruiser renters are required to undergo a pre-trip orientation, which includes an explanation of the vehicle’s features and how to operate it.
When choosing Cruiser, travelers have a set time limit to drive between cities, usually about four hours. However, customers who go past the time limit due to factors such as traffic aren’t penalized.
“Our model is very high utilization, so we want to keep these cars in motion as much as possible,” Sonnad said. “And so it really becomes the cheapest way to get between cities if you're going with friends.”
As of now, Tesloop’s shuttles average about two trips per day, and the Cruisers make one trip. Sonnad is hoping that eventually, the Cruisers will be able to handle two trips as well.
A Summer Project
Tesloop initially started as a way for Sonnad to offset the cost of purchasing his very own Tesla, “But I didn't have $120,000 to spare,” he said.
He conceived the idea of a livery service that shuttled riders from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on weekends, which would allow him to have the car on the weekdays for free, essentially. So, Sonnad did what any 16-year-old would do, he bought a share of Tesla stock, went to a shareholder’s meeting, and pitched the idea to Musk during a Q&A session.
After a month of visiting Tesla dealerships to get more familiar with the vehicles, Sonnad pitched his idea to a start-up team. They were impressed with his idea, and after the shareholder’s meeting where Musk delved into the future of autopilot, the team was convinced of the economic promise of the technology.
The team originally posted Craigslist ads offering rides in a Tesla between LA and Las Vegas for $85.
Cities looped together by Tesloop are chosen based on factors such as typical weather and, most importantly, the charging station infrastructure.
“You need fast charging everywhere you go,” Sonnad said. “We're a little constrained by it, because we can't, for example, put 20 more cars in the San Diego route because there's already a six-car wait every time we go to the charger there.”
Since auto-pilot mode only works on highways, pickup and drop-off points are dispersed along routes to ensure convenient, central locations, and few trip delays. All destination points must be near a charging station, which ends up limiting the number of vehicles that can be in service.
Charging stations fall under Tesla’s purview. Sonnad said that the automaker’s main consideration about the stations is that there are no wait times.
Sonnad isn’t planning on waiting for Musk to build more charging stations either. He said Tesloop may end up building a few chargers of its own. He also expressed interest in a program that Tesla is currently working on to help finance the construction of charging stations for people and companies that have “enough” cars.
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Earning Customer, Driver Loyalty
When he first launched the company, Sonnad figured his demographic would be younger Millennials who don’t own cars and look for sustainable transportation options. However, Sonnad said his customer base is very diverse, with people choosing Tesloop over flying between cities.
One such fashionable traveler, Rachael Dalian, needed to get to from San Diego to LA to visit friends at the end of a work trip. While looking for public transit options, she saw an ad for Tesloop. The door-to-door service and low cost caught her attention, and a first time user’s 20% off coupon sold her.
“It was a convenient and cost effective way to get to L.A. and way more comfortable than public transit,” she said in an email. “My driver was friendly and explained the features of the car during the trip which was really cool.”
She said she’d use it again if she’s ever back in Southern California, and would use it a lot more if it was available on the East Coast.
Tesloop Pilot Myles Warden has driven about 300 loops since stating with the company in 2016, originally learned about Tesloop on Craigslist while looking for odd jobs. The possibility of being paid to drive a Tesla appealed to him, although he admitted he originally thought the ad was too good to be true.
“I didn’t fully believe it until I had the job be true,” he said.
When it comes to hiring pilots, candidates must complete a rigorous screening process, consisting of three rounds of interviews, a background check, and a training loop, which is monitored by a certified Pilot.
Sonnad has big plans for Tesloop’s future, including adding non-Tesla vehicles to the fleet.
He envisions partnerships with Las Vegas hotels, and has already secured partnerships with ones in Palm Springs (all hotels in Palm Springs are Tesloop pick up and drop off points). He’d also like to add more routes, and expand to other locales in warm-weather states like Texas or Florida.
But perhaps the most important goal for Tesloop’s success is turning a profit. Right now, the company, like most startups, isn’t profitable. However, Sonnad believes that with high utilization — driving the vehicles about 20,000-miles per month — the company will be able to make about $1 per mile in drive revenue.
Driving the vehicles to their optimal range will require more daily trips and charging stations though.
Sonnad hopes that with Tesloop’s growth and the advancement of autonomous technology, the company will be able to pivot into a mobility solutions provider, not just a rental company.
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