Hyundai imagines a world in which it has turned everything into a robot

Hyundai has already showed off some practical robotics concepts last month in the lead-up to the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show. Now the South Korean automaker is going full galaxy brain with the introduction of a new “Mobility of Things” concept that it claims will power a whole slew of objects, from household plants and book shelves, to ambulances and autonomous passenger pods.

The spectrum of things that can be roboticized (for lack of a better term) is “unlimited,” said Dong Jin Hyun, vice president and head of Robotics Lab of Hyundai Motor Group, in a statement. “The goal is for robotics to enable all kinds of personal mobility, connected to communicate, move and perform tasks autonomously.”

“The goal is for robotics to enable all kinds of personal mobility”

Hyundai says it is developing two different standards: a modular platform called “Plug and Drive” (PnD) that combines steering, electric drive, and suspension hardware; and “Drive and Lift” (DnL) that can lift objects up and down. Combined with the four-wheeled robot MobED it announced last month, the two new modular platforms will be able to power a range of objects to move autonomously on their own, from tables and containers, to people movers.

Image: Getty Images

Here’s how Plug and Drive will work, according to Hyundai:

The PnD modular platform is an all-in-one mobility solution that combines intelligent steering, braking, in-wheel electric drive and suspension hardware. The single wheel unit uses a steering actuator for infinite wheel rotation, meaning it can turn 360 degrees, which enables holonomic movement, like a figure skater. LiDAR and camera sensors allow a PnD-enabled object to move autonomously.

PnD modules can be attached to anything from tables to containers for expandable mobility. Users can select various drive configurations and platform sizes based on their requirements.

“The PnD Module is adaptive and expandable to match human needs. Because in the world to come, you won’t move your things — they will move around you,” Hyun said. “PnD makes normally inanimate objects mobile. It’s this ability that makes changing practically any space possible. It’s a way to configure spaces on demand.”

Hyundai claims the modular platforms can be configured to modify office space to make “purpose built spaces” possible. But the more intriguing possibilities are in transportation. The company imagines a “purpose built vehicle,” measuring approximately four feet by five feet, as a “last-mile mobility [solution] for a single passenger.”

Sounds cool, but it will depend on how it looks in real life. Hyundai previewed some of these concepts in a glossy video it’s produced depicting a elderly woman retrieving her walking cane from a robotic holder, and then being whisked down the side of her multistory apartment building in an “individualized mobility cabin.” Later, we see her smile contentedly from within a glossy black pod on four wheels as it zooms around the corner of a nameless city. The pod docks with a “mother shuttle” containing a dozen other pods, with a scrolling LED sign meant to look like a city bus.

It’s not exactly dystopian, but it’s not not dystopian

It’s not exactly dystopian, but it’s not not dystopian, if you get my meaning. Presenting the idea as a mobility solution for people (i.e., seniors) with limited options is a great way to gloss over some of the more disturbing aspects, such as a robot bus packed with human passengers that are trapped inside individualized test tube containers.

Hyundai is clearly excited about the future of robotics. Last year, the company, which has a controlling stake in robot maker Boston Dynamics, rolled out a new version of its four-legged “walking car” concept called TIGER, or “Transforming Intelligent Ground Excursion Robot.” It’s the second vehicle to come out of the automaker’s Ultimate Mobility Vehicles studio in Silicon Valley, and the first designed to be fully autonomous, with no space for drivers or passengers. It’s like a real-life Transformer, but without the “bent on world domination” vibe.

In many ways, this builds on concepts introduced by Hyundai at CES in 2017, when the automaker envisioned a mashup of a smart home with an autonomous vehicle, with futuristic furniture moving seamlessly between both. Tellingly, this vision never came to pass. But as the technology matures, Hyundai is still holding out that its weird robotics concepts can find their footing in the real world.

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