SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 20 (Reuters) – Tesla (TSLA.O) Chief Executive Elon Musk blamed an over-reliance on factory robots for sending the electric carmaker to “production hell” four years ago, saying humans were better at certain jobs.
My goodness, how times have changed.
Musk’s Texas company is now launching ambitious plans to deploy thousands of humanoid robots, known as the Tesla Bot or Optimus, inside its factories, eventually expanding to millions around the world, according to job postings. The rumor is building inside the company as Tesla is having more internal meetings about robots, a person familiar with the matter said.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
In the longer term, Musk said in a TED Talk that robots could be used in homes, cooking dinner, mowing lawns and caring for the elderly, and even becoming a sexual “partner” or “kitten.”
The robot business may eventually be worth more than Tesla’s car revenue, according to Musk, who is now touting a vision for the company that goes far beyond making autonomous electric vehicles.
On his “AI Day” on September 1. On January 30, Tesla will unveil a prototype of its Optimus project, a nod to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots in the Transformers series. Production could start as soon as next year, Musk said.
Tesla faces skepticism that it can show technological breakthroughs that justify spending on “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 in the production of its cars.
Humanoid robots have been in development for decades by Honda Motor Co. (7267.T) and Hyundai Motor Co. (005380.KS)the Boston Dynamics unit. Like self-driving cars, robots have a problem with unpredictable situations. read more
“Autonomous cars have not been shown to be as easy as once thought. And to some extent it’s the same with humanoid robots,” NASA’s Dexterous Robotics Team leader Shaun Azimi told Reuters.
“If something unexpected happens, it’s very difficult to be flexible and resistant to those kinds of changes.”
At an “Autonomy” event in 2019, Musk promised 1 million robotaxis by 2020, but has yet to deliver such a car.
Musk’s robots may demonstrate basic capabilities at the event, but it would be difficult for them to impress public expectations of robots that are as capable as humans, experts say.
To be successful, Tesla will need to show robots performing multiple actions without a script, said Nancy Cooke, a professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Such a test could give a boost to Tesla shares, which are down 25% from their 2021 high.
“If it just makes the robot walk, or makes the robots dance, that’s already been done. That’s not that impressive,” he said.
Tesla did not respond to Reuters request for comment, but Musk has in the past proved doubters wrong, boosting the electric car market and building a rocket company, SpaceX, although some product launches were delayed.
Initially, Optimus will be doing boring or dangerous jobs, including moving parts in his factories, according to Musk.
Musk acknowledged that humanoid robots don’t have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without explicit instructions.
But he said Tesla can leverage its AI expertise and key components to develop and produce intelligent, but less expensive, humanoid robots at scale.
He tweeted Monday that his Autopilot team is also working on its Optimus robot, when asked about fixes to what it calls the Full Self-Driving beta, a test version of its new automated driving software.
Tesla is on a hiring spree for people to work on bipedal humanoid robots, with around 20 job openings at “Tesla Bot,” including jobs designing key robot parts like “actuators.”
“The code you will write will be executed to completion on millions of humanoid robots around the world and will therefore be held to high quality standards,” one of the job advertisements read.
Tesla has more than 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 “starting to turn around right now.”
“Certainly an important measure of success is whether they make money on it,” he told Reuters, referring to Tesla’s humanoid robot efforts.
Analysts see more show than product. “It’s all part of distracting people and giving them the next shiny object to chase,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Guidehouse Insights.
“Investors are not excited about Optimus,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla shares. “The probability of it working at scale is so low,” he said, saying it’s “infinitely more difficult than self-driving cars.”
And then there is Musk’s own experience with robots in the factory.
During the production hell of 2018, Musk specifically noted the problems of the “lint bot,” an assembly robot that couldn’t perform simple tasks that human hands can do: pick up pieces of “lint” and place them in batteries.
He said the cost of having technicians maintain the complicated robot far exceeded the cost of hiring someone to do the assembly.
The fluff bot is “a fun example, but it drives home the point that autonomy often doesn’t generalize well, so handling fluffy material that isn’t as predictable as a stiff part was causing a big problem,” he said. Aaron Johnson, mechanic. engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he said.
“Human hands are much better at doing that,” Musk said.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Information from Hyunjoo Jin; Edited by Peter Henderson, Ben Klayman and Lisa Shumaker
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.