Meet the Elevate UMV, Hyundai’s Robotics-Electric Car Hybrid

Walking the wild side

Walking the wild side

All of the cool car companies have a venture-capital sandbox that ferrets out innovative entrepreneurs with ideas that need fostering. Hyundai’s is called CRADLE. That’s an acronym for Center for Robotic-Augmented Design in Living Experiences. Founded in November 2017, CRADLE has already invested in some 30 startups covering fields ranging from artificial intelligence, to robotics, smart cities, smart mobility, and energy. Shortly after the group was founded, Hyundai’s executive vice chairman Mong-Koo Chung was walking around the CES show floor with CRADLE vice president John Suh and wondered aloud why nobody had crossed robotics with the automobile? Suh offered to give it a shot and his team dreamed up Elevate.

The concept is a modular go-anywhere electric vehicle that could be used for anything from rescue missions to exploration of other planets. The modular part involves a “skateboard” to which bodies suited to different purposes could be mounted. The go-anywhere part involves “legs” featuring five joints each that are capable of climbing a 5-foot wall or spanning a 5-foot gap, all while keeping the body level. The upper most “hip” joint and the lower ankle joints can both pivot and swivel, while the knee joint simply swings in one plane. With that many degrees of freedom, the vehicle can walk like a reptile or like a mammal. The “feet” feature electric wheel motors that can be locked with the help of electric brakes when walking and climbing, or can drive like a normal EV when Elevate crouches “down on its haunches.”

The model on display at the 2019 CES unveiling is one-fifth scale, which would make the life-size concept body roughly the size of a Jeep Wrangler. The wheels scale to about 18-inch diameter and an airless tire concept like Michelin’s Tweel is envisioned. The electric wheel motors at each wheel are reportedly of a daring new concept design under development at one of the CRADLE companies, featuring nearly flat rotor and stator geometry that promises triple the torque-to-weight of conventional motors.

A functional one-tenth-scale proof-of-concept model has been built and tested, and after the team carefully modeled the elevation and obstacles the fabled Rubicon Trail presents, it determined that the battery capacity needed to negotiate an entire 22-mile (35-km) up-and-back transit of the trail would require a battery pack about 1.5-times the size of a BMW i3 (currently 42 kW-hr). We forgot to ask how much energy legs can regenerate during the climb back down, but we’re guessing it’s less than when wheel motors do the job.

Hyundai envisions Elevate easily operating in autonomous mode, but manned driving presents the tricky problem of what the controls would look like for a vehicle with 24 degrees of freedom. Interesting use cases presented in the launch video include being able to walk itself out of a snow bank if slippery conditions send it off the road, and use as a paratransport taxi capable of half climbing the stairs to an urban brownstone allowing a wheelchair-bound clients to roll aboard with ease.

For now this is purely a concept, but it’s concepts like this that really grab the headlines at a widgets and gadgets show like CES.