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Elon Musk says Tesla’s Optimus robots can help solve the U.S. labor shortage

On an earnings call Wednesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the electric vehicle maker’s humanoid Optimus robots—which the company unveiled last August—could be in production by the end of next year and might just help resolve future labor shortages, like the one currently rattling the U.S. economy.

“The foundation of the economy is labor [and] capital equipment is distilled labor,” Musk said, referring to the robots. According to Musk, if you have “distilled labor” than you “don’t actually have a labor shortage.”

“That’s what Optimus is about. So [it’s] very important,” Musk said, predicting the Optimus robots have “the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic helped kickstart a major labor shortage in the U.S. In January, nearly 9 million workers across the U.S. called in sick due to Omicron, compounding a labor shortage sparked by last year’s “Great Resignation.” Short on staff, retailers like McDonalds and Starbucks have cut opening hours at thousands of stores across the country.

Meanwhile, shipping lines have lavished bonuses on their staff to thank them—and retain them—as logistics operators struggle to straighten out snarled global supply lines. Last year, China’s state-owned shipping giant Cosco Shipping Holdings paid staff a bonus equivalent to nearly three years of wages.

Musk said the first job for Tesla’s Optimus robots would likely be inside Tesla’s own factories “moving parts around the factory or something like that,” noting that “if we can’t find a use for it, then we shouldn’t expect that others would.”

Automation is certainly nothing new to car manufacturing. Car production lines began to invest heavily in robotic arms in the 1970s, displacing human labor. Robots are quickly marching on other sectors of the economy, too. According to consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, one third of all human jobs will be lost to automation by the mid-2030s.

However, “moving parts around” seems like a waste of talent for a supposedly sophisticated, humanoid robot, like Optimus. Tesla revealed the concept for its Optimus robot last year and, although it hasn’t produced a prototype yet, company visuals imagine the in-house bot will be a sleek bipedal machine, built to look like an average sized human.

Tesla’s vision is ambitious—considering the clunky reality of the bipedal Atlas robot developed by pioneers at Boston Dynamics, which also make the Spot robot dog—and may be unsuited for warehouse work. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, for example, has automated warehouses where small, floor-level robots—that look something like a Roomba on steroids—lift and transport entire shelves of products.

A humanoid robot, like Optimus, might be better suited for the service economy, but Musk thinks Tesla has a different robotic solution for one of the service economy’s largest sectors: taxis.

“I think basically everything pales in comparison to the value of robotaxi,” Musk said, speculating that Tesla will be able to capitalize on its Full Self-Driving features to convert idle vehicles into on-demand taxi fleets. Temporarily forgetting the value of Optimus, Musk said he expects “Full Self-Driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla.”

But whether it’s labor or cars, Tesla sees the future in robots.

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