Tesla's robotaxi unveiling won't just be about the technology: 'We're starting a new book'

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As much as Elon Musk’s boosters see him as a messianic figure, imbued with Steve Jobs-like powers to distort perceptions, his ambitions have a way of clashing with reality.

Musk has promised driverless cars for years, well before Tesla’s (TSLA) latest push for robotaxis. The extraordinary claims haven’t panned out.

Now that shareholders have approved the Tesla CEO’s impressive pay package, investors are looking to the company’s robotaxi unveiling in August.

And although Tesla’s focus on an autonomous fleet isn’t new, what has changed since Musk started predicting autonomy is that the challenges of driverless technology have come into clearer view.

On the same day Tesla confirmed that its voting shareholders rallied behind Musk, Alphabet’s (GOOG) Waymo issued a recall for its 672 driverless cars so that they would be less likely to crash into telephone poles.

Last week, General Motors (GM) announced an additional $850 million investment in its autonomous subsidiary Cruise to help cover costs after its robotaxi service was halted when one of its driverless cars struck and dragged a pedestrian.

Dedicated autonomous car companies are still grinding away at fundamental problems. But Musk is still banking on an autonomous future for the world's most valuable carmaker.

Investors are waiting for Musk to share more details on the robotaxi plan during the upcoming unveiling on Aug. 8. But it would be a mistake to think that a lackluster showing would doom Tesla.

FILE - Tesla CEO Elon Musk waves as he leaves the Tesla Gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide near Berlin, Germany on March 13, 2024. Tesla shareholders are charting the future of the electric vehicle company Thursday, June 13, 2024, as they wrap up voting whether or not to restore Musk's massive pay package that was thrown out by a Delaware judge. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is set to reveal new details of the robotaxi on Aug. 8. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Similar to prior events and investor calls, the particulars matter less than the story Musk can spin, the allegiance of his fandom, and the positive analyst reactions that adhere to a bull case thesis.

It almost doesn’t matter what the August showcase reveals about the technological progress of the robotaxi initiative. Musk’s insistence on positioning Tesla as a company moving beyond selling EVs is what’s more important, second only to his ability to convince people to keep thinking so.

“It’s tough sledding out there,” Musk told investors at Tesla’s annual shareholder event, referring to the EV market.

It isn't just Tesla that faces an EV pullback. Demand is cooling. And without hybrid or traditional gas-powered autos to fall back on, the company has to bear the full brunt of the slowdown.

But Musk, again, has turned to his deep well of grand promises to excite his base.

“Working on the Tesla Master Plan 4. It will be epic,” Musk said Monday on his social media platform X.

A glance back at Tesla’s three prior plans — which involved mass-producing EVs and setting up the foundation for global electrification — reveals a history of ambitious and even inspiring proposals.

Like most Musk proclamations, of course, some of the details are yet to be borne out. For instance, a plan to “enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it,” proposed in 2016, has yet to come to life.

But grasping for the stars only to reach the moon is its own victory. And Tesla’s loyal backers, perhaps rightfully, point out that by setting “stretch goals,” Musk provoked the entire auto industry to aggressively pursue EVs, pulling society forward. Even if right now, Tesla’s core EV business is under stress.

At Tesla's shareholder meeting this month, Musk also talked up the potential for Optimus, the company's humanoid robot, as its next big thing.

“I think Optimus is a 25-trillion-dollar market cap situation; it’s an immense amount of work to get there, but we’re moving very fast down that road,” Musk said at the shareholder presentation.

“We're not just starting a new chapter for Tesla; we're starting a new book,” Musk said.

Not the first time. And likely not the last.

Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.

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