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Elon Musk had some thoughts about robots during Tesla’s most recent earnings call. He predicted Tesla’s humanoid bot, known as Optimus among employees, could turn out to be more significant than the company’s electric cars.
“The foundation of the economy is labor,” Musk said on the call. “So what happens if you don’t actually have a labor shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point.”
It seems unlikely Optimus will scramble the global economy beyond recognition anytime soon — that might have to wait until Teslas drive themselves and humans populate Mars. But Musk is not alone in holding out hope that machines can save us from labor shortages. I’ve written in the past about a pair of tech startups working to solve hiring headaches for the logistics industry: Outrider Technologies is developing autonomous yard trucks to move trailers from dock to dock at warehouses, and Phantom Auto makes remote operations systems for forklifts, yard trucks and delivery bots.
Both companies are hustling to prove their technology can be a part of the solution to a labor crunch that has gone from chronic to acute during the pandemic, with little relief in sight. Outrider announced in November that Georgia-Pacific had completed more than 1,000 moves using its autonomous yard trucks (with safety drivers aboard) at a Chicagoland distribution center. The paper maker is one of 11 customers in Outrider’s pilot program. Outrider CEO Andrew Smith’s plan is to pull the safety drivers and begin commercial operations sometime in 2023.
From there, Smith says the transition to automated fleets will be swift. By 2027, he predicts most new yard trucks will be capable of moving around autonomously and Outrider will have thousands operating in the field. “We provide inflation-fighting technology,” Smith said. “Our goal is, as fast as possible, to address these bottlenecks where our customers cannot find people.”
Last month, Phantom Auto announced it had raised $42 million in funding from logistics giants ArcBest and NFI Industries, both of which plan to begin selling remote-operable forklifts to customers later this year. NFI plans to begin using its first units at a facility in Texas next week and to deploy 1,500 within the next few years, according to Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz. ArcBest, which entered a joint-development agreement with Phantom to build and sell forklifts that can run both autonomously and with remote operators, also intends to deploy thousands of its machines.
Phantom Auto’s technology still requires humans to operate the forklifts, but it can help unlock labor markets by allowing people to work on job sites from thousands of miles away. The idea is especially enticing in the U.K., where Brexit and Covid have hit the supply chain with a double whammy. From the middle of 2019 to mid-2021, the number of forklift drivers in Britain fell by 32%, according to a report by the trade group Logistics UK.
“People are scratching their heads on how are we going to get people from the population centers to the distribution networks,” says Alex Veitch, general manager for public policy at Logistics UK. “People don't want to live in the Midlands near the distribution centers. There’s not a lot there, so remote operation would be fantastic.”
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