Getting past human speed
The overarching goal is to get past the limits of human speed. A fully automated factory could, in Musk’s thinking, be operated by a few human experts, but otherwise, raw materials would go in one end and finished cars would roll out the other. In between, robots would do everything, a very high speed — speeds too dangerous to risk around frail human bodies.
Now you might ask, “What about the people?” Doesn’t Tesla want to keep employing California auto workers?
Actually, no. At some level, although Musk admires and appreciates the dedication of his workforce, he doesn’t think auto assembly is the best use of human life. We can argue about whether he’s right, but the dice is already cast. Tesla’s next big vehicle, the Model Y compact SUV, will be an experiment in Musk’s manufacturing ambitions. I expect it to be as much robot-built as current technology will allow.
Bear in mind that there will likely still be a place for people who want to build cars. I recently toured Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, Italy and there I saw many powerfully engaged workers, on a high-tech assembly line, building Ferraris largely by hand. In fact, Ferrari uses almost now fully automated assembly systems — the only ones at the factory perform tasks that are too hazardous or awkward for human workers. Otherwise, most of a Ferrari is handmade.
And that’s the way customers want it. Ferraris sell for over $200,000 (and up) and production is limited to under 10,000 units per years. Tesla wants to be delivering a million vehicles annually by 2020. Bespoke assembly isn’t going to cut it.
Time for a new leap?
We should give Musk the benefit of the doubt here, even if his likely choice to use the Model Y as a test bed, given the importance of that vehicle to Tesla’s future fortunes, is ill-advised. The last major advance in auto manufacturing was the so-called “Toyota Production System,” which gave rise to “lean” or “just in time” assembly of cars. All the world’s major carmaker have more or less adopted it as this point, and the quality of vehicles has dramatically improved.
The industry consensus has been that we’ll continue to see steady refinement of lean manufacturing, perhaps with incremental improvements in automation. But no wholesale switch to autonomous systems.
Much as Musk doesn’t want to tolerate the 40,000 annual auto-related deaths in the US alone — he wants to put self-driving tech in every Tesla to reduce that number — he doesn’t like the 20th-century dangers of the auto factory. Robots and artificial intelligence are the solution there.
The plan is inhuman. But Musk aims to get the people out so Tesla can be more humane. Will he succeed? It’s going to be tough. But if you’d said ten years ago that a startup electric-car company selling almost no vehicles would be worth as much as General Motors in a decade, no one would have taken you seriously.