Tesla’s robot waves but can’t walk yet. Musk plans to make millions of them

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 30 (Reuters) – Tesla ( TSLA.O ) CEO Elon Musk showed off a prototype of his humanoid robot ‘Optimus’ on Friday, predicting the electric car maker would be able to produce millions and sell them for under $20,000 – less than a third of the price of a Model Y.

Musk said he expected Tesla to be ready to take orders for the robot in three to five years, and described an effort to develop the product over a decade or more, the most detailed vision he has yet given of a business he has said could be bigger than Tesla’s electricity revenue.

Tesla’s push to design and build mass-market robots that would also be tested by working in their factories sets it apart from other manufacturers that have experimented with humanoid robots.

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The eagerly awaited unveiling of prototype robots at Tesla’s office in Palo Alto, Calif., was also part of what Musk has described as an effort to make Tesla seen as a leader in fields like artificial intelligence, not just a company that makes “cool cars.”

An experimental test robot that Tesla said was developed in February went out to wave to the crowd on Friday, and Tesla showed a video of it performing simple tasks such as watering plants, carrying boxes and lifting metal bars at a manufacturing station at the company’s California plant .

But a more streamlined current one, which Musk said was closer to what he hoped to put into production, was to be rolled out on a platform and made a slow wave to the crowd. Musk called it Optimus and said it would be able to walk in a few weeks.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to refine Optimus and prove it,” Musk said, later adding, “I think Optimus will be incredible in five or 10 years, like it’s a brain drain.”

He said existing humanoid robots “lack a brain” – and the ability to solve problems on their own. Instead, he said Optimus would be an “extremely capable robot” that Tesla would aim to produce in the millions.

Other automakers, including Toyota Motor ( 7203.T ) and Honda Motor ( 7267.T ), have developed humanoid robot prototypes capable of doing complicated things like shooting a basketball, and production robots from ABB and others are a mainstay of car production.

But Tesla is alone in pushing the market opportunity for a mass-market robot that can also be used in factory work.

The next-generation Tesla bot will use Tesla-designed components, including a 2.3 kWh battery pack worn in its torso, a chip system and actuators to power its limbs. The robot is designed to weigh 73 kg.

Tesla engineers, who, like Musk, all wore black T-shirts with an image of metallic robot hands making a heart shape, described how they developed the robot’s capabilities – including in areas such as how the fingers move – with a focus on making the cost with lower production.

“We’re trying to follow the goal of the fastest path to a useful robot that can be made in volume,” Musk said.

A humanoid robot developed by Tesla, known as the Tesla Bot or Optimus, is shown in a frame grab from the live video of Tesla’s AI Day streamed on August 20, 2022. Tesla/Handout via REUTERS

By developing a robotics company, Musk said, Tesla is changing the terms of a familiar mission statement that has become part of its appeal to investors and climate activists by pledging to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

“Optimus is not directly aligned with accelerating sustainable energy,” Musk said. “I think the mission broadens somewhat with the advent of Optimus to—you know, I don’t know: to make the future awesome.”

MIXED REVIEWS

Musk has described the event as intended to recruit workers, and the engineers on stage were addressing a tech audience. They detailed the process by which Tesla designed robot hands and used crash simulator technology to test the robot’s ability to fall on its face without breaking.

Musk, who has spoken out before about the risks of artificial intelligence, said the mass deployment of robots had the potential to “transform civilization” and create “a future of abundance, a future without poverty.” But he said he believed it was important that Tesla shareholders have a role in examining the company’s efforts.

“If I go crazy, you can fire me,” Musk said. “This is important.”

Many reactions on Twitter were positive, focusing on the speed of Tesla’s development efforts since last August, when Tesla announced its project with a stunt that had a person in a white suit simulate a humanoid robot.

Henri Ben Amor, a professor of robotics at Arizona State University, said Musk’s price target of $20,000 was a “good proposition” since the current cost is about $100,000 for humanoid robots.

“There’s a bit of a mismatch between that kind of ambition and what they’ve presented,” he said. “When it comes to dexterity, speed, the ability to walk in a steady manner and so on, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Aaron Johnson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, also said the robot’s needs were debatable.

“What’s really impressive is that they got to that level so quickly. What’s still a little unclear is what exactly it takes for them to make millions of these,” Johnson said.

Tesla also discussed its long-delayed self-driving technology at the event. Engineers working on the automated self-driving software described how they trained software to choose actions, such as when to merge into traffic, and how they sped up the computer’s decision-making.

In May, Musk said the world’s most valuable automaker would be “worth basically zero” without achieving full self-driving capability, and it faces growing regulatory scrutiny as well as technological hurdles.

Musk said Friday that beta tests of Tesla’s full self-driving capability will be “technically” ready for global rollout by the end of 2022, but regulations represent hurdles.

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Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Kevin Krolicki; Written by Muralikumar Anantharaman; Editing by Peter Henderson and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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