Honda U3-X: Simple, ingenious

Tokyo: It is not very often a car company subjects the big boss to an open (and unscripted) question and answer session. It is even rarer when the company in question is based in Japan. That, however, was exactly what Honda did – it put Takanobu Ito, president and CEO of Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and president of Honda Research, in front of 20 or so North American automotive journalists.

The discussion covered all things Honda – everything from the decision to leave Formula One (Ito says he does not regret the decision in spite of the fact it was the remnants of the Honda team that clinched the World Constructors’ Championship and saw Jenson Button take the world championship) to the future of the automobile.

Ito is refreshingly well versed on the changes that are taking place beneath the sheet metal of the modern automobile. The “infernal” combustion engine, while still the best source of automotive power, will have to make way for something else, he says. The ultimate solution to the dwindling fossil fuel stocks is going to be the fuel cell. It is fuelled with the most abundant natural resource on the planet – hydrogen. As the only by-product of combining hydrogen and oxygen (to produce electricity) is water, there is no environmental footprint – this is why the FCX Clarity fuel cell-powered car remains one of Honda’s key focal points. Until that day arrives – and it will take a massive investment in a refuelling infrastructure before anything serious begins to happen on the fuel cell front – the alternatives are the hybrid and the full-electric battery-powered automobile.

The latter is still, in spite of Nissan’s claims, pretty much a non-starter at this point. The driving range is far too limited and the time needed to “refuel” the vehicle is beyond the realms of reasonable – 16 hours when plugged into a regular 110-volt outlet. So, don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, this leaves the hybrid as the best alternative. This powertrain has come a long way in a very short time. Gone is the slowpoke that lumbered its way to 100 kilometres in what seemed like minutes (the 12-to-14-second run was only slightly faster than a serious cyclist pedalling downhill). In its place is a sportier conveyance that is both fun to drive and easier on the environment. The Honda CR-Z, which arrives later next year, epitomizes the new breed and the potential it will bring to an otherwise staid lineup of eco-cars. The good news is that the work being done under the skin on everything from the electric motor and battery technology to the power electronics needed to oversee the system will pay big dividends when the fuel cell finally reaches the mass market stage of development.

What the hybrid lacks at this point is a halo car. The Audi R10 TDI diesel that has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times polished the oil-burner’s image to no end. Here Ito, an engineer by trade and one of the masterminds behind the original NSX, gets serious, even as his face lights up. All of Honda’s future sports cars will be light and powerful – reducing the mass of any car allows a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine to be installed without sacrificing the power-to-weight ratio and the performance it brings to the party, he says. In an ideal world, Ito says, his dream car “would be a fuel cell-powered sports car.” Hey, a hybrid sports car in the interim would not go amiss, and it would polish the hybrid halo, especially if it breaks the mould in the same way as the NSX.

That’s one side of Honda’s R&D efforts; however, the other side is just as intriguing – mobility. Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot, and the U3-X, a funky unicycle, are prime examples. The U3-X (U for universal/unique, 3 for the third generation and X for the unlimited possibilities it brings) looks like a large boom box when its seat is folded away. Deploy the seat, turn the 10-kilogram U3-X on and it stands there defying gravity. Sit on the seat, put your feet on the foot pegs and it still just stands there. What it is accomplishing can be likened to balancing a broom on one’s palm. To keep the broom upright and balanced requires constant correction. That’s exactly how the U3-X manages to stand upright.

The secret to its ability is an inclinometer, an incredibly fast computer, and an advanced drive system. The HOT (Honda Omni Traction) drive system uses a single wheel but with a twist. The main wheel’s tread is made up of a number of much smaller wheels. When moving forward or backward, the U3-X relies on the large wheel. To move sideways, the small wheels spin. Rotating the big wheel and spinning the small wheels at the same time allows the U3-X to move diagonally. The drive system is so simple it is ingenious.

Just how user-friendly is the U3-X? I sat on it and rode it with virtually no instruction. Leaning forward moves it in that direction; lean back and it reverses seamlessly. Lean to the left or right and that’s where it goes.

Lean forward and to the left or right at the same time and it moves diagonally. Wild is the only way to describe the ride. Is there a future for this sort of technology? You bet.

When the world begins to institute car-free zones, simply park the CR-Z and ride the U3-X the rest of the way. The beauty is that the CR-Z’s 110-volt outlet is capable of keeping the U3-X fully charged on the way.

Photograph by: Toru Hanai