SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla has a history of making big promises. But its newest one is just average size, about 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds, according to CEO and self-professed “Technoking” Elon Musk.
Tesla says it plans to build a humanoid robot to perform basic tasks, such as wrenching on cars or making grocery runs. It’s part of the company’s broader ambitions in automation, which include building its own computer chip, dubbed the D1, to power the networks for vehicles it hopes to one day make self-driving.
Tesla previewed the concept at a presentation at its Fremont, Calif., factory on Thursday, dubbing it the “Tesla Bot” and “Optimus,” and said it would show a prototype next year. As part of the presentation, a human dressed as the machine made robotic gestures and then danced onstage, perhaps demonstrating the range of motion Tesla hopes the bot could one day achieve. Musk was quick to clarify that the dancing robot was not real.
The company was touting hardware such as its Full Self-Driving computer and computer chips, which it says could be integrated into a robot. Tesla said the robot would be outfitted with a screen, Tesla’s Autopilot system consisting of eight cameras and the company’s Full Self-Driving computer.
Tesla’s driver-assistance systems have come under scrutiny recently from industry rivals and federal safety investigators concerned about their rapid deployment on public roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation last week into Tesla’s driver-assistance suite, known as Autopilot, following nearly a dozen crashes involving parked emergency vehicles where the system was engaged. Musk has expressed confidence, however, that Tesla’s cars will one day be able to drive themselves.
“We have almost all the pieces needed for humanoid robots, since we already make robots with wheels,” Musk said on Twitter shortly after the presentation, referring to Tesla’s cars.
Musk, acknowledging the concept was in its very early stages, said the robots would have a personality of their own.
“It’s intended to be friendly, of course,” Musk said, “and navigate through a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks.”
Nonetheless, he said, humans need to be prepared for robots to perform menial tasks and ultimately work alongside humans — if not phase them out of the workplace.
“Essentially in the future, physical work will be a choice: If you want to do it you can, but you won’t need to do it,” he said.
Tesla has had a contentious relationship with its factory workforce at times, including findings that it violated labor rules in the past and reports that it called employees back to work during coronavirus shutdowns and terminated them for not reporting to the factory line during the pandemic. The company has also sought to automate tasks at too rapid a pace, forcing it to backtrack and integrate people back into the process.
In the mock-up Tesla showed, a white-clad robot was outfitted with sensors. It would be “built by humans, for humans,” according to the slide. The robot could dead lift up to 150 pounds and would travel at a speed of 5 mph.
“We’re setting it so that it is at a mechanical and physical level you can run away from it and most likely overpower it,” Musk clarified.
Musk has been wary of artificial intelligence outsmarting humans, even citing it as the biggest threat to civilization.
He said Tesla had decided to pool its resources into what it believed would be an emerging field of technology.
“The robot is not prompted specifically by manufacturing needs. It’s just that we’re just obviously making the pieces that are needed for a useful humanoid robot so I guess we probably should make it,” he said. “And if we don’t someone else would. … I guess we should make it and make sure it’s safe.”
Tesla has a history of exaggerating timelines and overpromising at its product unveilings and investor presentations. The company unveiled its Cybertruck electric pickup in November 2019, though the company recently acknowledged it would not be delivered until 2022 at the earliest. The company also held a Battery Day event last year to debut its next-generation battery cell, which would be outfitted in its top-of-the-line Model S Plaid-Plus edition.
Earlier this year, however, Tesla announced it was canceling the Model S Plaid-Plus and delivered the top-of-the-line Model S Plaid without the new battery.
Musk said Tesla’s robot might be called on to perform tasks such as driving a bolt into equipment using a wrench.
“This is why I think long term there will need to be universal basic income,” he said, “but not right now because this robot doesn’t work.”
“Join our team and help build this,” he added.