My friend was having her first solo art show out in Palm Springs, exactly 111 miles away from my apartment in Los Angeles. I'm not much of a car person, I get around primarily by bike and public transportation, so I considered my choices: drive there in my husband's Toyota Tundra, using about $90 in gas; take the train for $29; Uber or Lyft (roughly $177 each way); fly for about $244 roundtrip.
Or try Tesloop—a new company offering four trips per week from LA to Palm Springs in an automated Tesla for roughly $69. It's a rideshare model with four passengers and one "pilot" aboard, to ensure the automation does its job.
I booked two center seats for my husband and I and the next morning we awaited our ride at the Luxe City Center Hotel in downtown LA—one of the pickup spots listed on their website. When the black customized Model X with the company's logo on the side pulled in, and its gull-wing doors popped open, I felt as if my Batmobile had arrived.
Cid Williams, our driver, er pilot, welcomed us and introduced us to our two fellow passengers. Tesloop CEO Rahul Sonnad, whose 16-year-old son Hadyn created the company in 2015, explained that their "pilots" are vetted and trained via written material and driving tests, while educated through required shareholder meetings. Their role is to make sure the automated vehicles, which are still far from foolproof, do their job.
We buckled up, the doors sealed down around us like a space capsule, and took off. Cid, a former Lyft driver, manually navigated the maze of construction-filled streets out of the city, he said they'd be a little complicated for the car, and onto the freeway, where he announced the car would take over. It felt seamless, like transitioning to cruise control. And it didn't hurt that we were offered noise cancelling headphones, travel pillows, Wi-Fi and snacks.
My fellow passengers were a UCLA nurse (in the jump seat in back) and a Latvian filmmaker up front. The nurse shared she had driving anxiety and had just discovered the service by googling "ways to Palm Springs" the night before. The filmmaker seemed perplexed by the fact that his production company had booked the car for him as his way to a film festival, "I'm not sure why." Both were quiet most of the way, though in conversation it came up that the nurse had won a sexy legs contest in some southern state years ago, causing Playboy to come calling, "but I turned them down."
A few minutes into the ride, a Tesloop concierge named Stephanie beamed in on a mounted phone via Facetime to share some specs about the vehicle: sensors that include radar, sonar, and a front-facing camera as well as safety features like lane detection, blindside protection, and emergency braking. She explained it could accelerate, brake and steer for itself and that it was one of the safest cars ever tested by the Highway Safety Rating Association.
I couldn't help but notice that while she was chatting, the car momentarily veered left onto the 110 Freeway exchange, but Cid overrode it to keep us on the 101 to the 10 East toward Palm Springs. The small glitch was noted with a soft "bing," similar to what we hear in airplane cabins. After that, everyone dug into the snacks and we glided down the open road for the next hour and a half.
Once in Palm Springs, Cid dropped each of us at our pre-requested destinations and then headed to Indio to one of Tesla's Supercharging stations, where he'd charge the car while getting lunch. After that he'd drive a car full of new passengers back to LA. My husband and I ate at our favorite local vegan restaurant, hiked a bit of the Araby Trail, and Uber-ed to the art gallery. We rode back to LA with my friend in her Prius, which according to hydbridcars.com costs slightly more-per-mile than the Tesla or the Chevy Volt. Bonus points for our particular Tesla's vegan seats, too (a new offering from the company after it was suggested to Elon Musk at a shareholders' meeting).
Sonnad predicts that as the automated Teslas "get smarter" (through data gathering and software updates), "autopiloted cars will be the safest way to travel in two years." But for now, I'm glad we had Cid.
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