Tesla has long staged splashy events to generate buzz and media coverage of forthcoming — and sometimes aspirational — products. Part revival meeting, part recruiting event, the faithful get to see CEO Elon Musk speak, and investors get updates on priorities and progress.
On Friday, Musk will host Tesla’s second AI Day in Palo Alto, California, formerly the home to its global headquarters. The invitations that went out recently promised the latest developments in the company’s artificial intelligence efforts, including:
- Full Self-Driving, or FSD, the in-beta system that still needs an attentive human driver minding the wheel at all times;
- Tesla Bot, aka Optimus, the humanoid Musk has said will one day take over dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks from humans;
- and Dojo, the supercomputer Musk has said Tesla’s FSD team may utilize to improve the “brains” behind its driving systems, using the massive volume of video footage that the company’s cars capture.
The show-stopper of Tesla’s first AI Day, held in August of last year, was the humanoid bot that, at that time, was actually entirely human. After engineers gave detailed, highly technical presentations on the company’s driving-system development work, a person dressed in a skintight white suit and black helmet took to the stage to perform a jerky dance and presage an announcement from Musk.
“Tesla is arguably the world’s biggest robotics company,” he said, explaining the rationale behind the automaker working on a bot. “Our cars are basically semi-sentient robots on wheels.”
Just how sentient Tesla’s cars actually are is the subject of more than just debate. Days before Musk made those comments, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into whether the company’s Autopilot system is defective, after drivers using it repeatedly collided with vehicles at crash scenes, including emergency responders. NHTSA opened a second defect probe in February.
Earlier this month, a California man filed a proposed class action suit in San Francisco federal court, claiming the carmaker has “deceptively and misleadingly” marketed its driver-assistance systems and strung consumers along by suggesting for years that it’s on the cusp of mastering the technology.
Musk has nonetheless extended access of FSD to about 160,000 owners in the US and Canada. When one of those owners posted videos last month showing the latest beta version struggling with right turns, the CEO told the customer not to complain. When another Twitter fan suggested the world’s richest man may have been having a bad day and should apologize, Musk wrote back no — the owner was in the wrong.
The mood will surely be more jovial during AI Day, which Musk postponed back in June to give Tesla time to develop a working Optimus prototype. On its website and in job listings, the company refers to work on a bi-pedal humanoid for manufacturing, logistics and general purposes.
“The code you will write will at term run in millions of humanoid robots across the world, and will therefore be held to high quality standards,” a posting for a controls engineer says.
Tesla employs more than 20,000 people just at its auto plant in Fremont, California. How many of those jobs will be eliminated by bots is far from certain. An attempt to extensively automate the facility when the Model 3 first went into production ended in disaster. The CEO took ownership of the calamity back in 2018, saying it was his mistake.
“Humans are underrated,” Musk quipped.
(Updated to embed Musk tweet.)