Humanoid robot Optimus demo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and leaders from the company’s AI and hardware teams are expected to speak at the company’s AI Day 2022, an engineer-recruiting event, which will be live-streamed on Friday starting around 5:00 p.m. in California. You can watch AI Day 2022 here.
During the last AI Day in August 2021, Musk said Tesla was going to build a humanoid robot, which is referred to as either the Tesla Bot or Optimus today.
“It’s intended to be friendly, of course, and navigate through a world of humans, and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks,” Musk said at the time.
Tesla didn’t have a hardware prototype to show last year and made the 2021 announcement with an actor dressed in a Tesla Bot body suit dancing on stage. The stunt drew sneers from critics and cheers from fans.
This year, investors are expecting a real tech demonstration of the robot, along with updates on Tesla’s progress developing self-driving technology that can turn the company’s existing electric vehicles into robotaxis.
Musk has been promising a truly self-driving Tesla since 2016 when he said a coast-to-coast demo would happen by the end of 2017. To-date the company has only released driver assistance systems that need to be constantly supervised by a human driver who remains attentive to the road and their car, ready to take over at any time.
When Musk originally floated the humanoid robot concept at AI Day 2021, Musk said of Optimus, “It should be able to, ‘please go to the store and get me the following groceries,’ that kind of thing.”
Later, Musk said that robots made by Tesla will one day be worth more than its cars, and that thousands of them would be put to work moving parts around the factories, where humans build cars and batteries.
During Tesla’s 2021 fourth-quarter earnings call, Musk remarked: “If you think about the economy– the foundation of the economy is labor. Capital equipment is distilled labor. So what happens if you don’t actually have a labor shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point. That’s what Optimus is about, so very important.”
Tesla has a mixed record with automation.
As Bernstein senior research analyst Toni Sacconaghi wrote in a September 30 note ahead of AI Day 2022, In 2018 Tesla “had mistakenly tried to hyper-automate its final assembly (i.e. putting parts into cars).” The result was that Musk soon admitted “excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” and “humans are underrated.”
Tesla brought more people back to its manufacturing and assembly lines after that, but Sacconaghi writes that today Tesla is over-automating its customer service. Tesla owners generally find it difficult to get in touch with individual sales and service reps at Tesla, and are steered to conduct all possible resolution of complaints through Tesla’s mobile app.
A long-time robotics engineer, Alexander Kernbaum, who now serves as interim director of robotics at the vaunted research and development non-profit SRI International, says whether Tesla impresses with its robotics update at AI Day or not, the company has the resources to develop something meaningful and has inspired new interest in the field.
However, Kernbaum notes, when it comes to creating a robot that can make a difference in an car assembly plant, there’s really no need for Tesla to develop a bi-pedal robot. “Mobile robots will find uses,” he explains, “But mobility should be as simple as possible for a factory environment meaning wheels would be the way to go, not legs.”
Robotic legs require a lot of power, for one thing, which would put strain on any battery Tesla develops for its robotics. Additionally, legged robots — like people — can trip and fall. Wheeled robots would not be as likely to tip over. The safety concern should be tantamount in a factory, Kernbaum suggests.
Kernbaum believes Tesla would be best-served to focus on robotic hands. He said, “Hands are like the ultimate multi-tool. Dexterity and in-hand object manipulation are the grand 10-year challenges that will have an obvious impact on all precision manufacturing and on everything really.”
AI Day 2022 will be the company’s first major event since former AI leader of Tesla Andrej Karpathy resigned. AI Day precedes Tesla’s third-quarter vehicle production and deliveries report which is expected within days.