Tesloop? Let’s do this. I was making a day trip from Los Angeles to San Diego — a perfect time to give the city-to-city shuttle service in a Tesla a whirl.
I signed up online two days before my trip. There were two choices: I could rent the car all for myself and leave it at a drop-off point in San Diego ($49 to $59), or choose the shuttle service, meaning I’d rent a seat with a driver ($59 to $69). I chose the latter, figuring I’d get some work done on the way down. Seats were available for the 5 a.m. launch. Lucky for me, the pickup point was less than a mile from my house in West Los Angeles.
I was the only passenger in a Tesla Model S. At 5 a.m., Los Angeles’ infamous freeways weren’t yet clogged; it was smooth sailing. I managed to open a work folder for about 10 minutes — the balance of the time was spent talking to the driver. I asked a lot of questions.
Are the shuttles generally full? In his experience a portion of the runs from Los Angeles are empty, but from San Diego to Los Angeles the vehicles are usually full, he said, particularly as LAX is a drop point. (A subsequent check of the website revealed availability in three of the five LA-to-San Diego shuttles a day before.)A driver’s eight-hour shift consists of one roundtrip, at least for the LA-San Diego route. That’s about 120 miles one way. With three pickup and drop-off points and recharging in between shuttles, add about 30 more miles.
After mapping out the journey, the Tesla computer determines if the total miles fall within the available charge. The driver said our Model S — which was actually the first vehicle in the fleet when the company started in 2015 — never needs to charge opportunistically en route. However, the newer Model Xs often need to make a short pit stop to charge, even as the total available miles on a full charge for the Model X 75D is 237 miles.
Charging is becoming more of a hassle, he said, with wait times at Tesla’s public charging stations. While this is a testament to the growth of electric vehicles (EV), it illustrates the chicken-and-egg problem of EV sales and charging station infrastructure development. Elon Musk says the company is ironing out the production kinks for the Model 3 and promises to dramatically ramp up weekly production. Will infrastructure development keep apace? Some 20 years from now we may look back wistfully at these charging decisions — a tipping point in the transition into a new transportation era.
Did the driver make more money than Uber? It’s about the same, but the Tesloop experience as a worker is much more pleasant, he said. Indeed, he said about 95% of the freeway driving is with Tesla’s Autopilot, which was the case with our trip. I had visions of the driver playing board games with a passenger (like the YouTube videos you’ve probably seen) and wondered if I’d have a panicked reflex in a car full of Tesla technology evangelists.
Tesloop drivers are required to keep their hands on the wheel during Autopilot, and the Tesla itself nags drivers to hold the steering wheel in tight intervals anyway — Luddite visceral reaction to semi-autonomous driving avoided.
About 45 minutes into the journey we took a live Skype video call from a Tesloop “concierge” who explained the experience and features. I joked to the driver that it felt like an air travel experience, complete with available water, snacks, neck pillow, in-car Wi-Fi, and flight attendant. “Bingo,” he said.
I tried to do some mental calisthenics on holding costs and a threshold of profitability, based on available seats, trips per day, driver pay, and the capitalized cost of a new Tesla — a Tesla Model X 75D starts at $80,000.
I gave up, but not before weighing the fact that our Model S had 383,000 miles on it. (My driver said the battery was swapped out once very early on due to a fleet-wide issue, but is still delivering roughly the same range today.)
Remember the old bumper sticker, “Don’t laugh, it’s paid for?” At 383,000 miles, the depreciation was taken out of this car a long time ago, while power and maintenance costs are negligible compared to a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Yes, this vehicle is paid for, but it’s still a Tesla and still delivers a premium experience — the smiles and thumbs up along our journey attested to that.
Admittedly, any new similar service may not see profitability until awareness is sufficient to fill nearly all the seats and every Tesla rented for each run. Would that mean the price per trip will rise? Hopefully.
We sailed to San Diego on open freeways in less than two hours. As I was the only passenger, the driver dropped me directly at my destination, not the designated drop-off point. Tips gratefully accepted, the concierge said. Add a $20 tip to my overall expense.
For my afternoon return to Los Angeles I took a Lyft to the designated pickup point. The return, in a Model X with 203,000 miles, had two other passengers at separate pickup points. The return trip was even closer to an airplane experience, with passengers zoning to their Beats by Dre headphones in the Model X’s airplane-like seats.
One passenger, a businessman, was a repeat user. He liked being able to work or chill out, and he has taken Amtrak business class ($54 one way), but trying to get from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to his house on the Westside adds an extra expense and another 45 minutes during rush hour, he said.
Just as the morning driver attested, we stopped halfway to charge. It was a mere 10 minutes, which was great because I was able to get a pretzel and go to the bathroom.
In the future, we generally won’t own autonomous cars, we’ll subscribe to a service that will summon them as needed. Some rides (most, let’s hope) will be shared. The cars will be battery electric, not running on fossil fuels. Trips will be governed by an algorithm that calculates the quickest routes and measures total mileage with expected battery life.
Sure, you could call Tesloop a glorified livery-slash-rental service. But consider the ecosystem that Uber, Maven, Grab, Didi Chuxing, and others are forming — steps toward what an autonomous service will look like. Tesloop is following this model with today’s available technology.
There will be many startups, first-adopters, failures, and reboots on the way to transportation autonomy. On my trip home, it was the ancillary opportunities inherent in a world without steering wheels that filled my head. With this in mind, Beats by Dre has a glorious future.