Robots will walk you and drive you: Hyundai reveals its future

LAS VEGAS — A conference room at the Mandarin Oriental is not the place I’d expected to finally get captured by the robots. But there I am in a smart exoskeleton, unable to move. 

It’s lightweight and plastic, but my legs are locked in place by struts at the hips and knees. Luckily, the engineers from Hyundai hand me a pair of crutches. 

The left crutch has a game controller D-Pad. I lean forward and to the right, tap a button, and my left leg jerks up, out and down. Lean left, tap again, and my right leg does the same. I am a robot doing a Frankenstein’s monster stomp; maybe I’m some kind of superhero.

The name of the game is “mobility” — getting from point A to point B at the push of a button.

“It’s really the Iron Man suit,” says Mark Dipko, director of corporate planning and strategy at Hyundai Motor America. Actually, the superheroic leg robot, called the H-MEX, is designed to do what until a few years ago would be considered a literal miracle: making paraplegics walk again. 

It isn’t the first paraplegic-assisting suit. A couple of startups called SuitX and ReWalk got there first. But a manufacturing giant like Hyundai is getting in on the game — and the fact that it plans on producing the H-MEX as just one of a variety of consumer exoskeletons — will drive prices way down. 

(Those startups sell their robot leg rigs for $40,000 and $80,000, respectively; no pricing on the Hyundai model, expected after 2018, has yet been announced, but it should be considerably less.)  

It should also signal a whole new future: one where car companies don’t focus on selling you steel boxes, but where the name of the game is “mobility” — getting you and your stuff from point A to point B at the push of a button, no matter whether that button is on a crutch or a self-driving car’s dashboard.

Take your hands off the wheel: The Hyundai Ionic Autonomous Vehicle, arriving circa 2020.

Take your hands off the wheel: The Hyundai Ionic Autonomous Vehicle, arriving circa 2020.

That’s the purpose of this Vegas event. The South Korean car company — the world’s fourth-largest — is showing off three of its robotic prototypes to a small group of journalists, essentially rebranding itself as a mobility company. 

The H-MEX and a suit designed for workers lifting heavy weights, the H-WEX, are the first two prototypes. The H-WEX is designed to help workers lift heavy weights without putting their backs out or even bending their knees. But this alone isn’t going to make Hyundai rich: “Robotics is not a profit center for us,” Dipko says.

Hyundai is focused on attacking “massive distrust on the customer side” of self-driving cars. 

What will make the most money: mass-market autonomous cars. The company is adding self-driving technology to Hyundai’s Ioniq, which will come in hybrid and plug-in versions when it goes on sale next year (the hybrid gets an industry-leading 58 MPG).

Again, we shouldn’t expect to see this until 2020. But once it does hit the market, watch out. (Or don’t: the car will see you and stop automatically). Hyundai is utterly focused on attacking what Dipko calls “massive distrust on the customer side” of self-driving cars. 

We took the self-driving Ioniq for a test spin, and the first thing you notice is that it looks like a regular car. The laser-sensing LiDAR system is built into the front bumper on both sides, practically invisible. 

There are no weird spinning radar objects on the top, as in the Google self-driving car (now run by a spin-off company, Waymo) or the Uber self-driving car, which infamously ran a red light in San Francisco the day before the Hyundai event, putting the company into hot water with the California DMV. “That’s obviously something that can’t happen ever,” Dipko said mildly.

There were no such problems with the Ioniq self-driving car, I’m happy to report, even though Hyundai, like Uber, is developing its own road-mapping tech. On Vegas city streets, the Ioniq rolled happily along in the slow lane, sticking precisely to the speed limit. 

The central dashboard display sought to reassure passengers that it knew what was up at all times. Little icons of cars to the left and the right appeared whenever they were there in real life; a pedestrian symbol appeared when there was one or more human on the sidewalk. In the back of the car, we were shown far more complicated screens with wire-frame visions of whatever the LiDAR saw in its vast range. 

Hyundai is still experimenting with ways to make the dashboard display even more reassuring. There may be more than one pedestrian icon or a bicycle icon, for example. I suggested audio narration of the most important things the car sees around it; apparently it’s on the cards. 

The only time the engineer in the front seat unfolded his arms was once, to signal, when we were stuck behind a truck with its blinkers on. The car needed to be told it was okay to move out, otherwise it would have planted behind the truck in an excess of caution. 

The H-WEX Hyundai exoskeleton.

The H-WEX Hyundai exoskeleton.

Other than that, the only bump in an otherwise flawless ride was when the car seemed to brake a tiny bit too hard, too long before a red light; it may have been spooked by the shadow of an overpass. But that’s picking nits. This technology is ready for prime time. 

Same goes for the H-MEX (the “M” is for “medical”) and H-WEX (the “W” is for “waist.”) Trying the latter, which straps on to your back and arms, I lifted a box with 80 pounds worth of weights in it no problem. You feel the torque in the back part of the H-WEX bending down, then it snaps you straight up with none of the weight affecting your spine. 

I lifted a box with 80 pounds worth of weights in it no problem.

It also does wonders for your posture walking around, snapping your shoulders back into place. The only problem is that it may get you too used to the idea of lifting with your back rather than your legs. Pick up that box the same way without the H-WEX, and you’re looking at a one-way ticket to the back doctor. 

Hyundai is planning at least three other models of exoskeleton — one for elderly people with lower limb mobility issues (the H-LEX), one modular version for people with knee and hip problems, and another model for workers carrying heavier loads for longer times (the HUMA). 

The plan is that they’ll get steadily smarter (with AI controls that understand how you move), faster (1.6 miles per hour is the current top speed in the H-MEX), lighter (the H-MEX is 35 pounds) and longer-lasting (right now you get 4 hours per charge on the prototypes.) 

Based on these admitted limited demos, it seems the way we move in the 21st century is about to change forever — and that even the healthiest among us might one day slip on an exoskeleton as easily as a sweater.

BONUS: Volvo to Introduce Autonomous Smart Park, No Driver Needed

from Mashable!