Machine Design
A Technology Talk with Tesla Co-Founder Marc Tarpenning

A Technology Talk with Tesla Co-Founder Marc Tarpenning

The Co-Founder of Tesla Motors and several other technical startups provides insights from both the engineer and founder perspectives.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I’m a bit of a creature from Silicon Valley. I have started several companies, but I guess the most known is Tesla Motors. I like the startup life; the high-stakes can really push you to find new creative solutions. Throughout my career I moved from engineering, management, finance, to founder. That I found to be an interesting transition.  

You recently joined the technical advisor team at Clearpath Robotics; can you tell me a little about why you made this decision?

Mark Tarpenning
Mark Tarpenning

They have a bunch of products that I kept running into, so I already knew who they were and liked what they were doing. For example, one product they make is a little four-wheel robot about the size of a lawnmower that a researcher could program to drive autonomously in an area while avoiding obstacles. The user would have a sensor package on top to collect whatever data it is they were collecting. It didn’t have a specific application; it was just to send your sensor packages remotely through different environments. I thought this was interesting and, of course, they have expanded this to other products. So, as I was already interested in Clearpath’s work, I was receptive when they approached me about this opportunity.

What role do you feel robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will play in changing manufacturing, and/or the way we do business?

The amount of labor per unit of production has been dropping over time. There was a period of brute-force automation in the 1960s through the ’80s. It involved very expensive upfront cost for custom machines to make everything from detergent packets to ice cream cones. Back then, everything seemed very mechanical. There wasn’t a lot of focus on electronics or software. More recently, the electronics have been allowing more flexibility, options, and quality control. For example, robot welding can make a prefect weld each time. You could even have a second machine verify that each weld meets a quality standard. The goal of using equipment or tools in general is to produce a better product—not necessarily replace workers or take jobs.

Today, the real change is the ability to make smaller-scale production lines using robots that never would have made economic sense before. You don’t have to outsource or look for cheap labor because it doesn’t take millions of dollars and months of labor to install and program some of the modern equipment. I think these new machines are only starting to change the way we do small-scale production, and a lot of production is small-scale. 

Fig. 1
1. The Husky unmanned ground vehicle is a research device capable of navigating various environments, while a sensor or sensor package sits on top to collect desired data.

Will the Industrial Internet of Things, collaborative robots, and other innovations reduce jobs?

I believe strongly in the manufacturing capabilities of the U.S. Speaking with an entrepreneur [who] was moving production to his home state, he told me that it isn’t like things were in the past. We aren’t going to be starting factories with 100 workers running two shifts. He had to rely heavily on automation in order to be able to bring this production line in his home state.

Therefore, we might have fewer workers on a line, but with smarter equipment, we might start to see some products return and new products stay in the U.S. I think the smaller niche products don’t matter as much what the labor rates are—it matters where the supply chain is. Unfortunately, we managed to transfer a lot of our supply chain to Asia. It will be tough to get that back, but I think that automation and robotics are the only way we can compete and keep improving our labor-to-production value. So there might be fewer people on a production line, but due to the economics, without technology that line wouldn’t exist.

One example we can take from history is Luddite from the early 1800s—a band of English workers that destroyed machinery when they thought the equipment was threatening their jobs. In addition, at this time there were reports saying that it would be impossible to get more than 20% of population off the farm because you can’t grow enough food for everyone. Today, the U.S. has about 1% of our workforce on the farm while producing enough food for our country and more. The only way we get richer as a society is to improve our productivity, and we have always used technology to leverage that productivity.

It seems over time we have heard these doomsday scenarios that when technology replaces workers it’s the beginning of the end. However, we have seen just the opposite. Now the individual worker might be displaced and have a hard time finding a new occupation. Unfortunately, revolutions don’t necessarily affect everyone equally, but society as a whole has improved.

Are there specific technologies or trends you see gaining traction in robotics?

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine vision have underdelivered for 30 years. Recently however, we have been able to use AI and machine vision, and we will see more of this technology as time goes on. Machine vision specifically is picking up—in food sorting devices, automated driving sensors, and other applications. A robot with the ability to observe, notice changes, etc., is a big deal and will continue to be.

In terms of sensors, the motion and orientation sensors (such as gyroscopes) have added degrees of perception that haven’t existed, in an affordable way, until recently. Light detecting and ranging equipment, called LiDAR, can now be in a solid state and inexpensive. Instead of spinning mirrors, you can have a cost-effective, small widget you solder directly on the circuit board. In addition, these big changes in sensors don’t rely on a computers infrastructure. They are working at the fingertips or business end of the machines. I feel machine vision will be one of the technologies that bring robots closer to working among us.

Fig. 2
2. OTTO 100 is a smaller version of the 1500 that works well as a self-driving robot for the e-commerce and manufacturing distribution industries.

What do you feel are the key components to focus on going forward with robotics, and what technologies will provide the foundation for smart cities?

I am not necessarily a smart city or IoT expert, but in general, the more you instrument the more you learn about how things are working. The ability to monitor everything will lead to things becoming better, and I think it will happen in an organic way. For example, if the water company releases sensors to find water leaks, they will receive more data. Over time, they might see other patterns in the data, or that the sensors could provide more value. Perhaps it is possible to use the data to predict water demand, or electric usage. In short, there will be many interesting things happening in this area.

In addition, I think of automated driving as an attractive computer science problem. For example, there are short trips on well-mapped roads traveling at 25 mph, and then there are long highway road trips that might have different weather and speeds. I think it will be easier to solve and implement self-driving vehicles for these shorter transportation needs where they are constantly going to similar destinations on familiar streets. Ultimately, it is going to be interesting to see this technology as it evolves.

I heard you used to play the card game Magic the Gathering. Could you tell me a little more about startup life, and if you feel Magic has helped you become a more creative problem-solver?

I haven’t play Magic for a long time, other than occasionally with my kids. As for startups, you really don’t have any other options but to find creative solutions. In contrast, a large company probably has many products going on at once—so if your product doesn’t launch on time, you might lose your job, but to the company it isn’t an existential crisis. Generally, in a startup, everyone focuses on a single product or product line. If a product is not release on time, it could be catastrophic. There is a tremendous pressure to find creative and better solutions to your problems. In a startup, time-to-market is important, so it is quite fun and entertaining when you don’t have that time and must be creative.

I don’t know if Magic has changed my skills in problem-solving or creativity, but it does affect my dreams. I will still play with my kids sometimes, and when I play more my dreams are more creative. That probably has some impact to the consciousness.

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