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Experts from Ford, Toyota and Hyundai outline why automakers are pouring money into robotics

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Automakers’ interest in robotics is not a new phenomenon, of course: Robots and automation have long played a role in manufacturing and are both clearly central to their push into AVs. But recently, many companies are going even deeper into the field, with plans to be involved in the wide spectrum of categories that robotics touch.

At TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we spoke to a trio of experts at three major automakers. Max Bajracharya of Toyota Research Institute, Mario Santillo of Ford and Ernestine Fu of Hyundai Motor Group joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to robotics.

Why are automakers so interested in robotics?

Let’s get the simple question out of the way first, shall we? Moving beyond existing investments in manufacturing and autonomous vehicles, why do so many carmakers seem so bullish about companies like Boston Dynamics and Agility Robotics?

Bajracharya: I think all automakers are recognizing that there won’t be the automotive business in the future as it is today. A lot of automakers, Toyota included, are looking for what’s next. Automakers are very well positioned to leverage what they already know about robotics and manufacturing to take on the robotics market. (Timestamp: 1:01)

The role of concept vehicles

Concept cars are nothing new in the industry, but even still, Hyundai’s recently announced Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV) was pretty wild, with large, extending legs that help it walk off-road.

Fu: At the end of the day, it’s really pushing the limits of how we think about mobility. Oftentimes, when you look at something that’s sci-fi, it often becomes reality later. So it’s not just about how … we make incremental improvements to vehicle technology. What if we throw out this super, super crazy idea? How do we think about pushing the limits of technology development? (Timestamp: 12:31)

Eldercare

Much has been written about Japan’s aging population. It’s become the heart of a lot of what Toyota builds when it comes to robotics.

Bajracharya: It’s not only about keeping people in their homes longer and living independently. That’s one aspect of it — but in Japan, in 20-30 years, the number of people who are over 65 will roughly be the same as the number of people who are under 65. That’s going to have a really interesting socioeconomic impact, in terms of the workforce. It’s probably going to be much older and we at Toyota are looking at how these people can keep doing their jobs, so they can get the fulfillment from doing their jobs or staying at home long. We don’t want to just replace the people. We really think about how we stay human-centered and amplify people. (Timestamp: 14:34)

Investing in the next generation of researchers

Ford recently announced a major investment in the University of Michigan. Santillo discussed why the company is interested in being involved in early robotics work.

Santillo: Having us very close to the young talent allows us to help push them in the direction of, this is what Ford needs in the future. It’s a great talent attractor. We have a huge investment in the University of Michigan. It’s Ford’s biggest recipient of money for Ford’s university partnerships, and it’s been like that for a long time, putting us together with some of the best professors in the world. They want to work on real product, and Ford can give them the actual problems that need to be solved. (Timestamp: 18:30)

To build or to buy?

The question looming over any company investing in emerging technology is whether to build in-house or acquire a company with a proven track record. Hyundai leaned into the latter with its planned acquisition of Boston Dynamics. Would a company like Ford consider something similar for Digit-maker Agility Robotics?

Santillo: That’s always something we’re looking at. Part of our charter for robotics research is to understand where it’s best to build internally, where it’s best to buy and where it’s best to partner. Clearly partnering with University of Michigan is one piece. But also looking at the Digit Robot with Agility Robotics. Digit is research, but so much of the world is built for bipeds — us humans. It just makes sense to develop for that, even though it’s more difficult than wheeled robots. But it doesn’t really matter what we’re developing, though, because the tech stack ends up being the same. It’s just the locomotion is slightly different. What we’re trying to do at Ford is not focus so much on the design of new robotic platforms. We want to use existing robotic platforms that are offered by any number of great companies out there and essentially make them smarter and more useful for our business cases. (Timestamp: 20:43)

Fu: Long term, the technology that Boston Dynamics has built is absolutely critical to pushing the limits of how we think about vehicle development. For instance, with New Horizons studio, the mandate is reimagining what you can do when you combine robotics with traditional wheeled locomotion like walking robotics and walking vehicles. Obviously the technology that [Boston Dynamics] has put together plays a key role in enabling those sorts of concepts to come to life. (Timestamp: 26:44)

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