To achieve a near perfect fusion of rider and vehicle: that is the promise of the U3-X, an entirely new form of mobility unveiled by Honda in autumn 2009. Forward, backward, side-toside, or diagonally, the U3-X electric-powered, one-wheel-drive personal mobility device permits free movement in all directions just as in human walking, merely by shifting one's weight in the direction you want to go. But just what kind of vehicle does it take to accomplish this?

Development all started with a sketch of a 'wand'

Toru Takenaka / Hiroshi Gomi

Toru Takenaka (left side)
Fundamental Technology Research Center
One of the central figures in ASIMO and other robotics research; presented the Uni-ball at the Idea Contest over 20 years ago with Gomi and others.

Hiroshi Gomi (right side)
Fundamental Technology Research Center
As mechanical design supervisor, is involved in all aspects of Honda's robotics research and has memories of being a test subject for bipedal walking research.

Turn the switch on and let go. The one-wheel-drive U3-X controls its center of gravity to stand on its own.

When you encounter something truly fascinating, you don't need words to describe it. The joy and wonder are conveyed directly. That's how it is with the U3-X. You can sense immediately the vast potential in its compact form. Despite the novelty of this vehicle, you approach it naturally, like it's been a familiar part of our world since time immemorial.

How did development of the amazing U3-X get started? Shinichiro Kobashi (Fundamental Technology Research Center), the person responsible for the device's development, makes an extraordinary statement:

"It all started with a single sketch. It was a picture I drew during a brainstorming session on vehicles of the future. I wondered if it would be possible to create a vehicle with a form like this that could move freely in all directions - sort of like a witch's broom or a magic wand. I thought it would make an interesting project," he laughs.

It was in 2006 that Kobashi, who was in charge of motor control technology on the ASIMO development team had a brainstorming session over the sketch with his supervisor Toru Takenaka (Fundamental Technology Research Center). Just three short years since the project's inauguration, the U3-X had progressed to the point where it was ready to be unveiled at a press conference and test-ride event.

"Rapid development was one of our objectives right from the start," says Kobashi. "Honda lets us do interesting research. But the technical evaluations are extremely rigorous. No matter how unique the research is, if it doesn't produce results, it runs the risk of being cancelled before completion. In order to prevent that from happening, we took a strategic approach from the beginning, creating a novel project structure with involvement from research, fabrication, intellectual property, and design divisions. We didn't have many members to start, but we worked in close cooperation."

Also, at the project's outset, Kobashi made the following two decisions:

  • Whenever they ran out of ideas, they would return to the basics and favor simple procedures; and
  • They would learn from past research and proactively incorporate whatever existing technologies they could.

This is how the free-moving 'magic wand' got its start.

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