Sure, an affordable electric car can go a long way towards helping Australia achieve energy independence and wrestling its citizens away from fossil fuels. But if Elon Musk really wanted to solve our transportation problems, he'd be designing an electric bus. If his comments at a conference today are true, Musk is doing exactly that. At a transportation event sponsored by the Norwegian government, Musk revealed (in his signature coy way), that Tesla was working on a secret project to solve urban mobility:
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.
When the interviewer asked him if he was talking about the Hyperloop, he said no. "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," he said. "Autonomous vehicles are key."
What Musk is proposing sounds like a self-driving vehicle that would take people to and from transit stations that are just a bit too far away to walk. Getting people in these suburban or less-dense areas to transit stations without having to drive is called the "first mile-last mile problem" by transportation planners, and it's been the toughest problem for some transit agencies to crack. Some cities are working directly with Uber and Lyft to shuttle people those final few kilometres.
Consider a Tesla van that would use its Autopilot function to give a handful of people a shared ride, a lot like one of these concept cars. Like UberPool or LyftLine, summoning the van would lump passengers together and efficiently route it through streets based on their shared destination. As a first mile-last mile solution, this kind of technology makes a whole lot of sense for riders as it provides a faster, more direct connection for the first or last leg of your journey. But it's also the best possible solution for relieving congestion as that's four fewer private vehicles that will be on the road at the busiest time of day.
I also like that Musk is addressing the "we can't all have cars" issue. Electric cars are a better solution than those that burn fossil fuels so it's good that he's selling a ton of Teslas. But one of the greatest concerns about autonomous electric vehicles is that they will encourage increased car use and ownership, leading to more sprawl and traffic. If Musk can quickly introduce a Tesla that's designed to be shared, that could make a far bigger impact than all those Tesla car sales combined.
Top: Musk explaining his autonomous bus plan in Norway today. Image: Samferdselsdepartementet