What’s more important to Elon Musk? A hugely successful business selling critically lauded electric vehicles or the sci-fi dream of a humanoid robot that doesn’t exist outside of a slide deck?
Well, if you’re familiar with Musk’s modus operandi, you won’t be surprised that Musk has declared the latter — a non-existent robot — to be Tesla’s “most important product development” in a recent earnings call. Discussing the company’s product map for the years ahead, Musk noted that the Roadster and Semi (originally set to launch in 2020) and Cybertruck (first slated for 2021) would be in production “hopefully next year” (emphasis ours) before smoothly switching gears to talk up the Tesla Bot — a humanoid robot concept unveiled by the company last August in the form of a dancer in a spandex suit.
Here’s the quotation in full, via a Seeking Alpha transcript of the call:
So, in terms of priority of products, I think actually the most important product development we’re doing this year is actually the Optimus humanoid robot. This, I think, has the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time. If you think about the economy, it is — 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.
Now, some have interpreted Musk’s comment to mean that development of the robot at Tesla is taking precedence over vehicles, which is a stretch. Rather, Musk seems to be speaking speculatively about the long-term significance of a robot that’s able to tackle any physical labor that humans can. Later in the call, he touches on the subject again, noting that in terms of names for the bot, “the Optimus name seems to be sticking at least internally, Optimus Subprime” (it’s a good joke!) and that “the first use of the Optimus robots would be, at Tesla, like moving parts around the factory or something like that.”
Which, sure. I don’t want to get bogged down in assessing the credibility of any particular claims about the Tesla Bot here. (I’ve outlined my thoughts before, and, in short, I’ll believe it when I see it.) But it’s worth noting that these sorts of comments from Musk have the benefit of frothing up Tesla-friendly headlines while obscuring the admission that its actual cars that it actually makes money from are struggling to make it out the factory.
This is not necessarily a knock at Tesla or Musk for failing to keep deadlines (making cars is hard, and Tesla has basically done tremendously well inserting itself as a new player in the industry). But it’s a reminder that as much as Musk loves to surround himself with veils of sci-fi speculation that boost both his personal mystique and market cap, he does also run a company that makes cars and that is — right now — having some difficulty making some of those cars.
Now, would a magical robot workforce help with this problem? Sure, why not! But Musk and co will have to invent one first — and without any of said magical robots to help.