Honda’s very polite but very nervous engineers held their breath as I prepared to mount the U3-X, the company’s futuristic “personal mobility” prototype. It’s a unicycle of sorts that works a bit like a Segway. Although I approached the machine with the utmost care and followed Honda’s explicit instructions to wear pants — no skirts, they warned, and I can see why — the engineers were just a wee bit antsy.
“Gently,” one of them said. “Make sure you make adjustments very gradually.”
Born from the technology of Honda’s prized humanoid robot, ASIMO, the U3-X is a miraculous little device. Turn it on and it balances upright by itself. Sit on the fold-out seat and you can glide easily in any direction by simply shifting your weight.
Okay, so it wasn’t quite that easy.
Honda invited me and a few other journos to try out the U3-X in a conference room at a Manhattan hotel. My first attempt got off to a wobbly start. I found controlling the direction and speed with my body weight challenging, both physically and mentally. It took significant concentration to balance delicately on the U3-X while blocking out the noise of the revving motor. I slowly got the hang of it, and by the time I made the second ride, the engineers were breathing normally and the color had returned to their faces.
I was an old pro the third time I hopped on, zipping around the room forward, backward and side to side like Woz playing polo on a Segway. Another 10 minutes and riding the U3-X would have been easier than riding a bike. I skipped the training wheel phase every kid endures with a first bicycle and went straight to one wheel because the U3X’s balance-control technology did most the work for me.
The U3-X feels natural, if slightly big for a 5-foot-2 woman such as myself. It was like sitting on a low bar stool with my feet comfortably tucked onto the foot rests. In contrast to the monstrous Segway, the U3-X is unobtrusive and “pedestrian friendly,” but in many ways it’s just as ridiculous. My fellow test-drivers and I giggled over our rolling variations of the walking-down-stairs-behind-a-sofa trick and cracked jokes about rolling into a meeting completely deadpan and rolling back out backward — or sideways.
Jokes aside, the technology is pretty freakin’ cool. The gyroscopic balance-control system, inspired by that age-old game where kids balance brooms on their palms, essentially mimics the way humans balance themselves with muscle reflexes. Honda says the omni-directional driving wheel system is the first of its kind, operated by a series of concentrically mounted wheels — a larger forward- and backward-moving wheel and smaller outer wheels that move sideways.
It’s cool, but what’s the point? The U3-X doesn’t go very fast (It tops out around 3 mph), its battery only lasts an hour and it’s far too unstable for people who have trouble walking. Honda recognizes the limitations but says the U3-X is but a prototype, a glimpse at what could be.
“This prototype isn’t meant for a disabled or elderly person,” says Jeffery Smith, assistant VP of corporate affairs and communications, “The U3-X demonstrates the vast potential of this technology. You can imagine the possibilities for wheelchairs in the future.”
Honda also sees the U3-X having futures in tourism, the automated service industry and, yes, even sports. Imagine the 2028 Olympics, where kids tackle a half-pipe on a tricked-out, super-charged unicycle.
Photo of our intrepid reporter on the U3-X: Caitlin Hamilton. Video: Honda
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