Startup Autonomy offers electric vehicles by subscription

Two top challenges for more adoption of electric vehicles is availability of public chargers and the cost of the cars themselves.

While public agencies have been tackling the first barrier, a new California startup thinks it has the best app for the issue of cost.

Santa Monica-based Autonomy has started delivering Tesla Model 3 EVs to California drivers who subscribe to use of the vehicles, rather than buy or lease them.

After starting operations five months ago, Autonomy has signed up 800 subscribers, about one-third of which are from the San Francisco Bay Area, according to CEO Scott Painter. The company is receiving 100-200 cars from Tesla weekly, and Bay Area subscribers are picking them up at the carmaker’s Fremont plant at a current rate of 40-50 weekly.

Rather than a lease or loan term of several years, the company asks for a commitment of at least three months, and users can cancel at any time or switch to a different vehicle after that. And Painter stressed that the company taking delivery of cars now, so subscribers wouldn’t be on a waitlist for months.

“We own the car. You're using the car,” Painter told the Business Journal. “And so in a lot of ways, it's got the benefits of a rental in that we maintain the fleet — we're responsible for all of that. But it also gives you all the benefits of ownership: It's a car that sits in your driveway as long as you want. You go whenever you want, wherever you want.”

The monthly cost depends on how much is shelled out initially. If nothing beyond the $500 security deposit is put forward at the time of subscription, then it costs $1,000 a month plus tax for a Model 3. But the payment plan has 10 variations, going down to $490 a month if $5,900 is put down.

Painter compared that to an average rental cost of $105 a day for a Model 3 from Hertz, versus $21 a day for his service’s lowest monthly fee. And according to the market analysts at Cox Automotive, increasing interest rates on financing for new vehicles plus decreasing incentives from under-supplied dealers led to a higher average monthly payment in June of $730 nationally.

Currently, those looking to switch to a different car would have to pay another initial fee, but the company is considering a shift to a $250 switching fee for those who want to try something different.

“We’re into cash flow, so we want to keep subscribers with us,” Painter said.

The Autonomy subscription covers title, registration, routine maintenance (tires, brakes and wipers), emergency roadside assistance and liability insurance coverage common with leasing agreements. To better align with the company’s no long commitment ethos, in August it aims to start offering the option of a month-to-month, time-based insurance policy, prorated for the days the company’s telemetrics note the vehicle isn’t used, Painter said.

That follows an announcement July 26 that it inked an agreement with national dealership chain AutoNation so that Autonomy subscribers will pick up and service the vehicles at any of the 400 plus locations. The closest dealerships to the North Bay are in the East Bay and South Bay, but Tesla itself has North Bay service centers in San Rafael and Vallejo.

Autonomy claims to have commitments for 20,000 EVs. The deal with Tesla started with the Model 3 sedan but is set to expand to models Y, Roadster and Cybertruck. The company said it is in talks with Ford for its F-150 Lightning.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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