Plus, Will Elon Buy a Patent from Me?

In my work over the decades, I’ve visited the factories of many clients.  The smell of machine oil takes me back to my engineering school shop class where I learned to operate Bridgeports and Hardinges.  I even learned how to use a newfangled computer to program a milling machine so I didn’t need to turn the wheels manually.

Last month, I took an especially unforgettable factory tour.  Tesla’s Gigafactory Texas is the largest building in the world (based on floor space square footage – Boeing has a larger volume factory).  As a fan of Tesla cars and technology, it was a dream come true, earned by referring a friend to buy a new Tesla.

One of the guests was my son, who aspires to be a robotics engineer, but who has a dozen years before picking a major.  My visiting brother-in-law and a local friend who sold me my first Tesla joined.  We were under strict rules against photography, and this report passed review unedited by Tesla to ensure compliance with our visitor NDA.

The tour was essentially private for the four of us, joined by three other Tesla guests who held back as we peppered our guide with questions about the most American-made cars available.

Our guide was a warm and gregarious gent named Brian, who revealed that he’s not just a tour guide but second-in-command at Tesla developing a growing tour program. I don’t know whether he’s spoken to Elon, but I imagine his boss has. Which is interesting when we hear about visions of a tour program including “a rollercoaster through the factory”. Not as predictions or even objectives, but as Elon’s inspirational guidance.

A few days prior, we received clear directions to check in at a visitor center away from the main building and parked there. A shuttle bus took us to the main entrance to meet our guide. We saw countless Cybertrucks on the way, so it’s clear that this is the Cybertruck Factory. Everything was locked tight, so a visitor who got past guarded traffic gates (you won’t) will not be able to enter the lobby.

The lobby included Model Y #4,000,000 and some other fun items.  We saw a short video overviewing the factory history, then donned protective gear and entered through a pair of white doors.

We entered at the end of the Model Y production line. Shining new cars were being inspected and readied for transport. A boom box played cinematic music that choked me up as I thought of how these machines that were nothing but raw materials days ago, would go on to be parts of families, and get nicknames, share vacations and precious moments. First baby seats on the way home from the hospital. Graduation white shoe polish marking the windows with pride.

As an engineer with a 40-year-old degree, my surprising take from my observations was not stupendous magic, but of impressive yet humble engineering. Every part, every system, every monstrous robot was a doable, knowable, even comprehensible work of engineering. Yet the whole was monumental.

The grandest view was not much different from looking down an airport concourse: look to the right down the “road” taken along the line by forklifts, and then to the left, and you saw the near mile long building converging to infinity. But most was local. No soaring ceilings on our tour that was limited to the first level of four. This giant mile-long box was packed tightly with machines.

The line was not a simple runway. It was more like an MC Escher maze as cars were shifted from here to there, from level to level by giant robots, sometimes for no reason other than there needed to be a cross street for people and things to cross the line, so the line went up to form a bridge. And the line went from side to side, deviating to the paint line that separated the Y and Cybertruck lines and served both (remember the raw metal on the Cybertruck needs to be painted for corrosion protection, and a nice black surface in the door frames).

We saw little of the most highly automated and dangerous aspects. No Gigacasting, no panel stamping; and no battery production. But we saw motors, finish panels applied to body structures and the occasional welding sparks. And we saw lots of human-intensive finish assembly of trim and interiors.

The Cybertruck line?  We saw it in motion, with bodies marking through their process.   No panel forming. But the fully formed unskinned bodies revealed all. A light bronze paint covered their raw metal (and could be a good wrap color inspiration). This engineer’s impression was MOTION. The crews working on and under the glaring bodies were busy. Not standing around like a government construction crew while one guy worked a problem. They were all PRODUCING and the line was MOVING. (I did not attempt a stopwatch analysis of production rate).

One of the coolest things on both lines was what our guide said Elon calls “dumb robots”. These are the motorized barges that each carry a vehicle body around the smooth factory floor we all walked on.  The dumb robots follow invisible embedded guides like slot cars and simply avoid bumping each other like haunted mansion Disney cars. But they “walked” among us and patiently awaited their turn to serve.

Which brings me to our first question for our guide. The answer was that there are no humanoid robots in the factory, at least that visitors may observe or are told about. There is an “Optimus” robot on the line, but he is a monster arm that lifts cars, and was named by the engineers who built him, and has no relation to our humanoid friend.

Our tour neared an end as we saw wheels with tires attached by robots to the Model Y cars (the world’s best-selling vehicle). Those wheels might have tires from any of several brands.

I especially loved seeing the Ultra Red ones (same as my car) and note that they try to batch many of a color for efficiency, though multiple colors are operating at a time on the paint line, and they can even shoot Quicksilver and Cherry Red here if I didn’t misunderstand. Also regarding paint, the most popular color is always the free one.

What would you guess is the last part of a Tesla to complete it?  The wheels are on. It’s ready to drive. After the cameras are calibrated as another robot spins the wheels, a giant robot hoists it over our heads toward the last Tesla workers to build the car. The arm lowers it to a comfortable height above their heads and they cover those bright motor housings and orange power cables with the plastic underpants that keep the bottom smooth as an aerodynamic baby’s.

Then, the moment every father who has been in the delivery room will understand: those tires first touch the Earth (a low ramp on the factory floor). The car “takes its first breath” and begins its life: a journey perhaps as long as a voyage from the Earth to the moon, starting with a squeaking roll of inches, new rubber on epoxy-coated glossy floor.

Then, just as we witnessed upon arrival for our tour, the quality team swarms the new baby like neonatal nurses: checking the vital signs (each battery is installed with a 30% charge to help the vehicle check itself out, calibrate and drive) and wiping the baby clean to hand her eventually to her new parents.

All too soon, our tour is over and we are awarded some little party favors we will treasure. Our guide helps with photos back in the lobby. And we are greeted by our driver for the trip back to the gravel parking lot.

Only on reflection later can we think of any way to realistically enhance the tour (besides rollercoasters and access to dangerous and clean room areas): some perhaps nonexistent elevator ride to an upper level, perhaps a glimpse at a grand sunlit Willy Wonka space that adds a third dimension to a facility whose world record floor space with multi levels earns its superlative (behind Boeing assembly building only in volume). But without that this was an unforgettable experience of a lifetime for father, son, brother, and friend. Never miss an opportunity to take a Tesla Factory Tour.

Will Elon Write Me a Check For a Change?

As I’ve discussed, when I get an idea I think is good (low bar, sometimes) I don’t go to social media and write “They oughtta…”.  Instead, I write it up and file it as a patent application.  I’ve done this with gun stuff, digital camera tech (as an enthusiast), barf bags, refrigeration, and now, self-driving vehicle tech like my Tesla has (or needs).

After filing less than a year ago, I’ve recently been granted a US patent for the auto-shift invention Tesla needs. I invented and patented an alternative solution to the “swipe-to-shift” function that some dislike, and which Road & Track called “a bad design”. I love stalkless in both our Tesla cars, but don’t like swiping the edge of my cars “iPad screen” from reverse to drive every time I back out of a parking spot. So, I conceived of a system that recognizes certain consistent patterns of steering and other inputs, and either auto-shifts or offers a prompt to the driver.

And I have just been granted US Patent 11,932,230. Imagine backing out of your garage or a spot at the mall, with your usual steering and braking patterns, and the system simply knows that you want to go forward now like you always do. You back up, cranking the steering one way, brake, then crank the steering the other way. Would you rather it auto-shift with an alert, or would you feel more comfortable accepting the proposed shift with a tap on the brake? The system may use visual data to avoid unwanted shifts, and may employ AI data gathered from other drivers as an alternative to hard-coded rules. I believe that Tesla engineers can implement this update as a software change for the entire fleet of stalkless drivers to enjoy, and am offering Tesla a royalty free license for testing and evaluation.

Patent rights are available for use on customer vehicles for a reasonable royalty to be negotiated. While I applaud Tesla making its patents open source, I must rely on the fruits of my own work to support the financial security of my family, making licensing necessary. Only Tesla is being offered exclusive rights, in recognition of its admirable mission. Non-exclusive rights will be available to other automakers only if Tesla declines exclusivity.

It’s possible that Tesla’s self-driving that recently took a monumental leap forward using only AI data instead of software code will leapfrog the need for my invention.  But I can always dream of a tiny $1 per car royalty rate, which would be multi-millions annually today, and tens of millions in the years to come.  Wish me luck!

Meanwhile, if you have your own patent royalty dreams, give me a call.

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About the Author: Ben Langlotz

Ben Langlotz is the nation’s leading firearms patent and trademark attorney, and the author of Bulletproof Firearms Business: The Legal Guide to Success Under Fire. He is trusted by more firearms industry companies than any other lawyer or law firm in the nation, and is consistently ranked at the top of all attorneys in securing gun patents and gun trademarks.