Less than two months after touting a plan to put driverless taxis on the road, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk on Tuesday walked back the ambitious timetable.
On April 22, just days before Tesla turned to public markets to raise $2.3 billion in debt and equity, Musk had announced at an event called Tesla Autonomy Day: "Next year for sure -- we'll have over a million robotaxis on the road."
Existing Tesla owners could download software and turn their electric cars into moneymaking driverless cars, he said. Their cars would appreciate in value, Musk said, so owners would make more money selling their used car than they'd paid for it new.
On Tuesday, speaking to shareholders at the company's annual meeting, Musk hedged his earlier statement, saying Teslas would be "capable" of such driverless operation. "We will have a million cars capable of self-driving" next year, he said. "We'll still need regulatory approval.
"We could practice a rideshare fleet with people and then, um, that would be good for figuring out things for the robotaxi fleet in the future. So that might make sense. Sort of a supervised robot taxi."
Executives in the driverless-car industry had been highly skeptical of Musk's original announcement, saying such robotaxi fleets won't be practical for many years.
The shareholders meeting came as Tesla finds itself at yet another crossroad. After lifting investor hopes late last year with a rapid rise in sales of its latest sedan, the Model 3, and two consecutive profitable quarters, Tesla in the first quarter saw sales of all three of its models plummet, most of all the high-margin luxury Models S and X.
The company, with only four profitable quarters in its 16-year history, posted a net loss of $702 million in the first quarter. Revenue fell to $3.7 billion from $6.3 billion in the previous quarter, the fourth quarter of 2018. The company sold 63,000 cars, down from 90,700. Scarce cash got scarcer, dropping to $2.2 billion from $3.69 billion.
Sales rose somewhat from April to May, as Tesla cut prices. On Tuesday, Musk insisted that brighter days lie ahead.
"I want to be clear, there is not a demand problem," he told shareholders. Underlining his earlier guidance that at least 90,000 cars will be sold in the second quarter, which ends this month, he said, "We have a decent shot at a record quarter on every level. If not, it's going to be very close."