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Clean Transport

Published on November 25th, 2017 | by James Ayre


Why Isn’t Toyota Building EVs? Because It’s Too Busy Building “Humanoid Robots”

November 25th, 2017 by  

Toyota’s official stance on plug-in electric vehicles can often be exasperating — how does the company that launched the Prius (coming up on two decades ago now) dither so much when it comes to the rapidly growing sector? Do company execs truly believe that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles present a better bet? Or do execs simply intend to keep the current paradigm (and thus profit margins) going for as long as possible?

And if Toyota isn’t spending all of its research and development resources on plug-in electric vehicles and solid-state battery tech (which does look promising), then what is it spending the rest on? The “Third Generation Humanoid Robot (T-HR3),” apparently.

Perhaps this is a cheap shot, as some reading this might claim, but with the rate that greenhouse gas emissions are being emitted, the rate that the environment that humans completely depend upon is being wrecked, and the rate at which social standards and discourse seem to be breaking down, does the world really need a humanoid robot? Seriously? Maybe I just don’t get it.

Notably, the press release announcing the new robot included the comment that Toyota was using the expertise developed over decades of designing industrial robots/machines “to develop new mobility solutions that support doctors, caregivers and patients, the elderly, and people with disabilities.”

So I guess that the focus on robots is intended to help the country deal with its rapidly aging population? Even with that consideration in mind, it seems silly to focus on such things when the serious problems fast bearing down on the industrial world are taken into account, doesn’t it?

For those interested, here are some select excerpts from the press release on the matter: “Toyota’s latest robotics platform, designed and developed by Toyota’s Partner Robot Division, will explore new technologies for safely managing physical interactions between robots and their surroundings, as well as a new remote maneuvering system that mirrors user movements to the robot.

“T-HR3 reflects Toyota’s broad-based exploration of how advanced technologies can help to meet people’s unique mobility needs. T-HR3 represents an evolution from previous generation instrument-playing humanoid robots, which were created to test the precise positioning of joints and pre-programmed movements, to a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.”

“The Partner Robot team members are committed to using the technology in T-HR3 to develop friendly and helpful robots that coexist with humans and assist them in their daily lives. Looking ahead, the core technologies developed for this platform will help inform and advance future development of robots to provide ever-better mobility for all,” commented Akifumi Tamaoki, General Manager, Partner Robot Division.

Cultural barriers notwithstanding, I can’t help but think that such tech represents a misallocation of resources — both with regard to material resources, but also (and more importantly) to research and development resources.

Continuing: “T-HR3 is controlled from a Master Maneuvering System that allows the entire body of the robot to be operated instinctively with wearable controls that map hand, arm and foot movements to the robot, and a head-mounted display that allows the user to see from the robot’s perspective. The system’s master arms give the operator full range of motion of the robot’s corresponding joints and the master foot allows the operator to walk in place in the chair to move the robot forward or laterally. The Self-interference Prevention Technology embedded in T-HR3 operates automatically to ensure the robot and user do not disrupt each other’s movements.

“Onboard T-HR3 and the Master Maneuvering System, motors, reduction gears and torque sensors (collectively called Torque Servo Modules) are connected to each joint. These modules communicate the operator’s movements directly to T-HR3’s 29 body parts and the Master Maneuvering System’s 16 master control systems for a smooth, synchronized user experience. The Torque Servo Module has been developed in collaboration with Tamagawa Seiki Co., Ltd. and NIDEC COPAL ELECTRONICS CORP. This technology advances Toyota’s research into safe robotics by measuring the force exerted by and on T-HR3 as it interacts with its environment and then conveying that information to the operator using force feedback.

“The Torque Servo Module enables T-HR3’s core capabilities: Flexible Joint Control, to control the force of contact the robot makes with any individuals or objects in its surrounding environment; Whole-body Coordination and Balance Control, to maintain the robot’s balance if it collides with objects in its environment; and Real Remote Maneuvering, to give users seamless and intuitive control over the robot. These functions have broad implications for future robotics research and development, especially for robots that operate in environments where they must safely and precisely interact with their surroundings.”

While I don’t seem to get it, I am open to being enlightened — is there more to such tech than idealistic delusion? Or am I mostly right about this?



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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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