Mr. Musk first laid out the vision for the robot, called Optimus, little more than a year ago at Tesla’s first-ever AI day. At the time, a dancer in a costume appeared onstage. This time, Mr. Musk has said he wants a prototype to be at the gathering that is scheduled to unfold from 5 p.m. local time in Palo Alto, Calif.
Mr. Musk has painted a vision of Optimus as helping Tesla make cars more efficiently. He has also suggested the robot could serve broader functions and potentially alleviate labor shortages.
“My guess is Optimus will be more valuable than the car long term,” Mr. Musk said Aug. 4 at Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting. “It will, I think, turn the whole notion of what’s an economy on its head, at the point at which you have no shortage of labor,” he added.
When he first unveiled the Optimus concept, Mr. Musk said such a robot could have such an impact on the labor market it could make it necessary to provide a universal basic income, or a stipend to people without strings attached.
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Tesla has also encountered problems with automation. Early efforts to rely heavily on automated tools to scale up vehicle production suffered setbacks, and the company had to rely more heavily than planned on factory workers. Mr. Musk later tweeted: “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”
Mr. Musk, who has been instrumental in popularizing electric vehicles and pioneered landing rocket boosters with his company SpaceX, also has a record of making bold predictions that don’t immediately pan out. Three years ago at an event about automation, he projected that more than a million Tesla vehicles would be able to operate without a driver by the middle of 2020, positioning the company to launch a robot taxi service. That hasn’t happened.
Mr. Musk said Optimus might be a tool to be rented on an hourly basis and take on menial tasks around the home.
One of the big questions around Tesla’s humanoid robot is its central purpose, said
a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor. If Tesla’s main goal is to improve manufacturing, a quadruped likely would have been easier to build than a humanoid robot, in part because additional legs make it easier to balance, he said.
Mr. Musk for some time has said Tesla aimed to be more than just a car company.
Mr. Musk billed the latest event, like last year’s, as one aimed at recruiting engineers in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics and chips.
Tesla has long bet on automation to keep the company ahead of competitors. The company’s cars are outfitted with an advanced driver-assistance system, known as Autopilot, that helps drivers with tasks such as maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles on the road and staying centered in a lane.
The company is developing and selling an enhanced version of Autopilot that brings more automated driving into cities. Tesla calls the system Full Self-Driving, or FSD, although it doesn’t actually make vehicles autonomous and the company tells drivers to keep their hands on the wheel while operating the car. Tesla has steadily raised the price of FSD, which now retails for $15,000. AI has been at the heart of Tesla’s efforts to develop more advanced driver-assistance features and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles.
Tesla’s pursuit of automation has increasingly come under scrutiny. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates auto safety, opened a probe into Autopilot last year after a series of crashes involving Teslas that struck first-responder vehicles stopped for roadway emergencies.
Two U.S. senators have also asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Tesla has been deceptive in its marketing of Autopilot and FSD.
The electric-car maker has long said that driving with Autopilot engaged is safer than doing so without it. Tesla points to internal data showing that crashes were less common when drivers were using Autopilot, though some researchers have criticized the company’s methodology.
Write to Meghan Bobrowsky at [email protected] and Rebecca Elliott at [email protected]
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