Elon Musk attends the opening ceremony of the new Tesla Gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide, Germany, March 22. Musk blamed over-reliance on factory robots for sending the electric automaker to “production hell” four years ago , saying that humans were better at certain jobs. (Patrick Pleul, Pool via Reuters)
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SAN FRANCISCO – Tesla CEO Elon Musk blamed over-reliance on factory robots for sending the electric carmaker to “manufacturing hell” four years ago, saying humans were better at it. Certain jobs.
My, how times have changed.
Musk’s Texan company is now proposing ambitious plans to deploy thousands of humanoid robots, known as Tesla Bot or Optimus, inside its factories, eventually expanding to millions of people around the world, according to job announcements. Buzz is developing within the company as Tesla is holding more internal robot meetings, a person familiar with the matter said.
In the long run, Musk told a TED Talk, robots could be used in homes, making dinner, mowing the lawn, or caring for the elderly.
The robot business may ultimately be worth more than Tesla’s car revenue, according to Musk, who now fosters a vision for the company that goes far beyond manufacturing self-driving electric vehicles.
At its “AI Day” on September 30, Tesla will unveil a prototype of its Optimus project, an allusion to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots in the Transformers series. Production could begin next year, Musk said.
Tesla faces skepticism that it may show technological advances that would justify spending “general purpose” robots in factories, homes and elsewhere, according to robotics experts, investors and analysts interviewed by Reuters.
Tesla already employs hundreds of robots designed for specific jobs to manufacture its cars.
Humanoid robots have been developed for decades by Honda and Hyundai’s Boston Dynamics unit. Like self-driving cars, robots have problems with unpredictable situations.
“Self-driving cars haven’t turned out to be as easy as previously thought. And it’s the same with humanoid robots to some extent,” NASA’s Dexterous Robotics Team leader Shaun Azimi told Reuters.
“If something unexpected happens, being flexible and robust to these kinds of changes is very difficult.”
In an “Autonomy” event in 2019, Musk promised 1 million robotaxis by 2020, but has not yet delivered such a car.
Musk’s robots may be able to demonstrate basic capabilities at the event, but it would be difficult for them to impress the audience’s expectations of capable robots like humans, experts say.
To be successful, Tesla will have to show robots that perform more unscripted actions, said Nancy Cooke, a professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Such evidence could provide a boost to Tesla shares, which have fallen 25% since their peak in 2021.
“If it just makes the robot spin, or makes the robots dance, it’s already been done. It’s not that impressive,” he said.
Tesla did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment, but in the past Musk has proven skeptics wrong by kicking off the electric car market and building a missile company, SpaceX, although some product launches were delayed.
Initially, Optimus will perform tedious or dangerous jobs, including moving parts around his factories, according to Musk.
Musk acknowledged that humanoid robots don’t have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without being explicitly instructed.
But he said Tesla can leverage its expertise in AI and key components to develop and produce intelligent, but less expensive, humanoid robots on a large scale.
He tweeted On Monday his autopilot team is also working on his Optimus robot, when asked about fixes to what he calls Full Self-Driving beta, a trial version of his new automated driving software.
Tesla is looking for hires for people to work on bipedal humanoid robots, with around 20 job postings on “Tesla Bot” including jobs designing key robot parts as “actuators.”
“The code you write will execute in millions of humanoid robots around the world and will therefore be held to high quality standards,” said one of the job advertisements.
Tesla has over 2 million vehicles on the road.
Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer of Agility Robotics, a humanoid robot company founded in 2015, said the technology “is just now starting to turn the corner.”
“Of course, an important measure of success is, do they make money?” he told Reuters, referring to the efforts of Tesla’s humanoid robots.
Analysts see more show than product. “It’s all part of distracting people and giving them the next shiny object to chase,” said Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid.
“Investors aren’t thrilled with Optimus,” said Gene Munster, managing partner of venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla stock. “It’s just such a low probability that it will work on a large scale,” he said, saying it’s “infinitely more difficult than self-driving cars.”
And then there’s Musk’s experience with robots at the factory.
During production hell of 2018, Musk specifically noted the problems of the “fluff bot,” an assembly robot that failed to perform simple tasks that human hands can do: pick up bits of “fluff” and put them in batteries. .
He said the cost of servicing the complicated robot by technicians far outweighed that of hiring someone to assemble it.
The fluff bot is “a funny example, but it brings home the point that autonomy often doesn’t generalize well, and therefore handling soft, fluffy material that isn’t as predictable as a hard part was causing a big problem,” Aaron Johnson, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University said.
“Human hands are much better at that,” Musk said.
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