We are taking a break from our usual programming of cars and car-related stuff to give you this highly irrelevant review on something that most people think looks stupid, but we think is rather brilliant because we spent some time sitting on it and going round in pointless circles at the Tokyo Motor Show for our own amusement science.
It is called the Honda Uni-Cub β and yes, the Honda in its name is the very same that is responsible for the NSX and the engine in Senna-Prost’s dominant McLaren MP4/4 Formula One race cars. Admittedly it does look like one of those egg pods from the Alien franchise, with little legs doubling up as foot rests, and frankly a little underwhelming when we are relating it to Honda with exciting phrases like VTEC and Type-R.
But this is Honda we are talking about, a company that is responsible for a whole lot of things that aren’t cars. You name it they probably have their name stamped on it. From motorcycles to airplanes, from lawn mowers to power boat engines, from compact power generators to hydrogen gas generators, describing them as anything other than a car maker is actually still technically correct.
The Uni-Cub β is just one of Honda’s many engineering curiosities, a side project that could only happen with Honda’s engineering-led culture and their pursuit in exploring various engineering avenues. In fact the Uni-Cub β is the third-iteration of Honda’s personal mobility device, which started with the dumbbell looking U3-X, and have been improved to be lighter and more intuitive to use.
Like its predecessors, the Uni-Cub β features a balance control technology that originates from their research into humanoid robots, the same sort of technology that keeps their amazing ASIMO robot walking upright.
In this case the technology is used not only to keep the machine upright on its single wheel, but also to read the users’ body movement to translate it into directional movement. Taking a seat on the Uni-Cub is simple enough, the soft cushion is comfy – perhaps the most comfy barstool in the world if I’m honest – whereas the internal motors keep the device upright and steady.
To activate the Uni-Cub you have to pull a small tab behind the cushion and the foot rests on its side would snap forward, where you would have to take a leap of faith in Honda’s engineering take your feet off the ground and leave your fate to engineers you probably haven’t even met, or even understand. I know that for a fact because the host at the Tokyo Motor Show, who was guiding me through its operation, only spoke Japanese.
That being said, it doesn’t take a language course for me to operate the Uni-Cub as it responds to my body movements. If I lean forward the wheel creeps slightly forward, and likewise if I tip myself backwards the Uni-Cub goes into reverse. Though my first few minutes on the Uni-Cub saw the little seat fidgeting about, but once I learnt to relax my body and trust that it won’t face plant me on the floor, moving about was as intuitive as, well walking. Scratch that, it is even easier than walking.
The Uni-Cub sensitive sensors would instantly translate any lean forward or backwards into the appropriate forward or reverse motion. If I tilt my shoulders the Uni-Cub’s omni-directional driving wheel system would glide along sideways in the corresponding direction, and if I turn my upper body the Uni-Cub would rotate to follow suit.
Most of the Uni-Cub’s movement is done by an ingenious Honda Omni Traction Drive System which features a huge single wheel that has smaller diameter wheels that turn horizontally across the width of the main large diameter wheel. This allows the Traction system to move forward, backwards as well as sideways, on a single wheel.
The smaller wheel mounted to its back however is there to allow the Uni-Cub to rotate when stationary, and provide a more natural cornering feel. Sure enough, soon after I took my seat I was running circles around the small demonstration ring they had prepared, traveling sideways, and turning around on a dime. Hovering gracefully and silently about like I’m seated on some sort of low-flying magic carpet. The feeling is equally surreal as it is fun.
Powered by a lithium-ion battery pack, Honda says that the Uni-Cub β has a 6km range, or able to run for 90 minutes at a sauntering pace of 4km/h, which is good enough for most applications that need you to constantly walk considerable distances in your work place, like in a hospital or warehouse.
But what does the Uni-Cub β have over one of those weird Segway like devices? Well for one it is far more intuitive, manoeuvrable, comfortable, and actually looks like a product of the future rather making you look like a complete tool. You don’t have to use your hands to operate it, so that means you are free to carry things or tweet about the Uni-Cub on the go, if that strikes your fancy. Furthermore dismounting the Uni-Cub is as simple as stretching out your legs, putting your feet on the ground, and standing up. The Uni-Cub will remain resolutely up right.
Sadly the Uni-Cub β isn’t available for the public as Honda says that they are still testing and refining it. If there is a commercial future for the Uni-Cub β it is to be found through a fee-based leasing programme for various businesses and organisations, but that is as far as Honda would go in the foreseeable future.
It is more than just a charming curiosity, the Uni-Cub β is just another example of Honda doing what they do best. Just as how they gave the world the Honda Super Cub, the most produced motor vehicle in history, and came up with the idea of stuffing a tiny suitcase-sized Motocompo motorcycle into the boot of their City city-car, Honda is more than just ingenious space utilisation in the Jazz or banzai performance in the Civic Type-R.
Since its founding by the eccentric and intrepid Soichiro Honda, the Big-H seems to be on a never ending quest to move us in more ways than one, improving our lives in areas that aren't even related to cars. And the Uni-Cub β is another ingenious development of that idea that deserves to be realised, because it is just so damn fun briliant.