The race toward sustainable mobility is moving car companies in odd and unexpected directions. For example, Honda today unveiled the U3-X, a compact electric personal mobility device that fits between the rider’s legs to provide movement forward, backward, side-to-side, and diagonally.
The Honda U3-X is made to easily use, carry, or store. The 22-pound device has a foldable seat and footrests—and a body that functions as the frame in which users can retract the various components. When unfurled, riders jump on and go—adjusting speed and motion by simply shifting weight. The precise capabilities of the single-wheeled U3-X were achieved in Honda’s robotics program, which also produce the ASIMO two-legged robot.
It reminds us of the strange two-wheel, two-seat electro-gyroscopic vehicle that General Motors unveiled last year. That device, called the PUMA or Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, was the first in the world to combine electric drive with both vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and autonomous driving and parking. A few years ago, Toyota showed a similar three-wheeled i-Real personal mobility vehicle.
But the most appropriate allusion could be the personal mover-feeder-monitor device used by blob-bodied people in the Pixar movie Wall-E. In the dystopian animated film, human beings are permanently strapped into car-chairs, and plugged into computer messages. In the film’s futuristic world, people have ceased using, or being able to use, their legs for mobility.
Perhaps we should be moving in the opposite direction: using human power to provide propulsion for car-like vehicles, rather than building car-like mobility devices to supplant human locomotion. Last year, Hungary-based carmaker Antro gave foot pedals to all three front-row passengers in its Solo tribrid—gas-electric-human—concept car. The pedals provide the opportunity to recharge batteries like a crank flashlight—and to get a workout on your way to work. That design brings us full-circle in history—sort of—to the Flintstones car.
With up to 80 percent of the world’s humans projected to live in cities within a few decades, the mobility needs of urban dwellers will rank high for automakers. Academics and theorists have long predicted that new modes of city transport would emerge to meet those needs. At the same time, cars, electric motors, computers, and mobile communications are converging. So expect more concept designs like the Honda U3-X in the future.
Honda is planning to showcase the U3-X at next month’s Tokyo Motor Show.