At CES in Las Vegas this week, Honda demonstrated tested use cases for the autonomous work robot prototype it premiered at the previous iteration of the technology convention last January. The brand is openly seeking partners to further integrate this literal rolling tech bed into other sectors.
The droid, which resembles a wheeled ox that’s been put through a car crusher, is known by the mechanical moniker 3E-D18. Built on the rugged ATV chassis that the brand has been producing and honing for three decades, the robot features all-wheel drive, a GPS- and sensor-based semi-autonomous drivetrain, and the ability to attach and power swappable accessories through a rail-mount system.
It also has the capacity to be programmed to move according to three different self-driving modalities: A-to-B (point-to-point, as directed by GPS), Pattern (sweeping back and forth as if on the hunt for something, or in some other shape), and Follow Me (locking on and tracking a human or other object.)
None of this seems the least bit nefarious—can you sense our sarcasm?—a sensation that is reinforced by the robot’s leering expression, and our inability to immediately come up with a cute nickname for it like “Artoo.” We’ve long thought that robots are supposed to be cute so that we will let down our defenses around them and allow them access to our lives. This thing upends that convention.
“It’s based on an ATV chassis so it has extreme capabilities, all-wheel-drive, and a low center of gravity, so it can go places a truck or traditional vehicle can’t. It’s nimble and powerful,” says Pete Wendt, a senior planner in Honda’s advanced planning department, where the company thinks about products 10 to 15 years in the future. “That’s why it looks purposeful. Because it is.”
Honda has been working for decades on preparing Japan (and the world) to face two key, intertwined, human-made global crises. The first is a large aging population unsupported by the low-birthrate of succeeding generations, and the second involves environmental and other disasters that are caused mainly by humanity’s parasitic presence on the planet. The company’s big idea has been, robots. Small, friendly-faced helper robots have been proven to keep the aged occupied and entertained. They are also capable of encouraging the elderly to take their meds and perform physical therapy. Larger robots like Three-Dee (we’re trying here) can transport assistance into risky or ruined situations that are unsafe for humans such as a radioactive nuclear power plant following a tsunami-initiated meltdown, or a rubble-strewn street still suffering from fracking liquid-induced earthquake aftershocks.
In order to demonstrate other, less disaster-focused uses for this thing and its swarm of buddies that represent the advance army for our future overlords, Honda has already partnered with a few seemingly innocuous organizations. It carried up steep gradients the heavy equipment required by Colorado firefighters—water, axes, chainsaws—to spare them fatigue before they hit the fire line. It assisted California agricultural field workers in enhancing their “efficiency” by trucking their harvest buckets to the weigh-in station. And it put a bunch of sheep and human lawn maintenance workers out of a job at a 178-acre North Carolina solar field by towing a mower around the array. But, don’t worry. The robots aren’t coming for your job. Yet.
“What we heard from the research we did with potential partners in agriculture, construction, and search and rescue is that a vehicle like this can free up people from doing repetitive or redundant tasks so they can be more productive and focus on their core competencies,” says Wendt. “Honda’s vision for robots is one of humans and robots working together collaboratively.”
Sadly, this vision does not take into account the robots’ own plan for the future, which no doubt involves human subservience and the eventual destruction of mankind.