Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Honda promises to change the world with U3-X, the first ‘mechtronic’ unicycle

Leo Lewis in Tokyo

Every so often, a brand new “personal mobility” contraption appears and someone declares that the world is about to change forever. For the car and the bicycle, the claims were legitimate. For the jetpack, hydraulic pogo stick, Sinclair C5 and hydrogen powered rollerskate, less so.
But shaky odds of success have never deterred Japan from gadgetry. So gird yourselves, mortals, and throw away your walking shoes — because if Honda is right, pavements across the globe will soon be the domain of U3-X, the world’s first “mechatronic” unicycle.
A decade in the making and test driven exclusively by The Times, Honda’s creation unambiguously restores Japan’s reputation as the most fanatical of mad inventors. Its starting point, explains an excitable Honda boffin, was nothing less than the reinvention of the wheel. The balancing technology came from the same division of the company that recently produced a pair of robotic trousers.
After a 30-second tutorial, the test drive begins. Minutes later I have mastered the future of travel: it is somewhere between the hovering landspeeder in Star Wars, the effortless glide of a Dalek and a piggyback from my dad when I was 4.
As I recklessly shimmy around the boardroom, reversing gloriously into a whiteboard, the chief engineer behind the unicycle struggles to describe how the U3-X is working beneath its shiny, carbon fibre shell.
The trick, says Shinichiro Kobashi, is to imagine balancing a broom handle on your palm. The thousands of tiny movements your hand instinctively makes to keep the broom upright are simulated in the U3-X by a lattice of motion sensors and Honda’s new omni-directional wheel.
The new Honda drive system, he continues with a cackle, can do all sorts of useful things ordinary wheels cannot, such as moving sideways.
None of this, however, outshines the machine’s most spectacular magic trick: Honda has somehow managed to build a 10kg unicycle that can stand upright on its own. Taken off its charging stand and held in the starting position for a few seconds, the U3-X quivers to life. It will not fall over as long as its batteries last. Even while in motion, the unicycle is nearly impossible to topple and makes no balancing demands either of the buttocks cupped in its soft leather saddle or their bemused owner. The driver merely leans the torso in the desired direction of travel and the single wheel compensates improbably for the shifting weight of its master, rumbling off with a puny electric whirr.
One day, says the engineer, polo matches will be played on these machines. For the moment, though, any match would be a slow one. Honda has limited the unicycle to a maximum speed of 4mph (6km/h) — a speed at which it makes considerably more sense to walk.There are reasons why Honda may be on the brink of a great personal mobility transformation — and many why we may never see the U3-X again.
The machine is far more portable than a fold-up bicycle and takes up no more pavement space than a pedestrian. But Honda are not yet talking about a price for the machine, or even a release date.
If nothing else emerges from the project, however, Honda may well be the first company to produce a car that rolls sideways into a parking space.