CES 2018: Honda’s robotic electric dreams

10 January 2018 | by Chris Maillard

CES is a technology show with a strong emphasis on the future, and Honda definitely delivered. Though what sort of future their tech team think we’re heading for is a subject that poses some interesting questions. With a great emphasis on AI and autonomous operation, their set of interlinked devices provided a fascinating if mildly disturbing glimpse into how we might interact with robots, and vice versa.

The most headline-friendly, or just friendly, of their offerings was a robot shaped somewhere between a bowling pin and a penguin with a range of rather emoji-like facial expressions and a disconcerting habit of following you around. Known, in a rather Star Wars style, as 3E-A18, Honda says it is “developed to seamlessly support people in their everyday lives. 3E-A18 can serve as a guide at places such as airports or shopping malls where many people gather.”

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“The 3E-A18,” says the company, “ is capable of offering information and care by understanding the individual needs of people and analyzing their surroundings and expressions. Recognizing many people experience the need for comfort when placed in stressful situations, as exemplified by the wide-spread use of service animals, 3E-A18 is designed with a soft exterior skin that invites people to touch or hug the robot.”

There’s a video below, which should allow you to decide whether the correct response is touching and hugging, or just feeling slightly spooked. However, it’s an interesting pointer for those who are wrestling with the idea of giving autonomous vehicles a distinct personality.

More car-like is 3E-D18 (see a theme?)  an autonomous off-road workhorse based on the firm’s well-proven ATV chassis. Built for fire, rescue, agriculture and construction uses it’s a no-nonsense, small and highly capable unit which will have a variety of uses. We’d bet that will swiftly include military and security functions, which will make anyone who has seen Robocop experience a mild frisson of unease. Here’s a video of it in action.

A more gentle and slow vehicle, the 3E-C18, is a sort of utility cart for ice-cream vendors, mobile DJs, and other hipster-friendly low-speed uses. Though this sounds quite low-tech, the fact that it has a set of giant animated eyeballs on the front and is apparently designed to “ learn by observing how people act and operate autonomously” adds a little futuristic oddness to the concept.

Then there’s the 3E-B18, which is really just a modular motor and battery pack on to which you can clip various attachments like a baby buggy, a shopping trolley, a personal mobility chair, a baggage cart and so on. Of course, it also has a certain level of AI built in.

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In fact, that modular power pack is at the heart of all these devices, and several more including a standalone electric power unit and a backup unit for feeding excess power back to the grid – not unlike a portable version of Tesla’s Powerwall idea. 

To demonstrate that further, a modified version of the Honda Pioneer ATV/buggy was also on the stand, using four of the 1kWh power units and promising less environmental impact than its petrol-powered equivalent. Though charging points are somewhat scarce in the Mojave Desert, it still looked fairly purposeful and, more importantly, quite plausible.

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The blue bits on the side are the battery packs

The robots and their AI were very much the high-profile, attention-grabbing units but in fact it’s the relatively dull swappable battery pack idea which may prove to have more immediate usefulness for small and relatively lightweight vehicles. Still, who wouldn’t want an independently-minded hot dog cart with eyes..?

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