US President Barack Obama interacted and played soccer with Hondas Asimo robot in Tokyo this week. Photo: Reuters.

In 1986, Honda Motor built a pair of robotic legs that could walk in a line. A decade later, it added an upper body.

On Thursday in Tokyo, Honda’s latest robot, Asimo, met its first world leader.

It chatted in English with US President Barack Obama, ran, jumped and kicked a soccer ball.

For its next trick, Honda believes, Asimo will give the vehicle-maker an edge in building the car of the future.

The kid-size robot, which can acknowledge a raised hand and track three conversations at once, is the product of three decades of work in image processing, voice recognition and artificial intelligence – essentially the pursuit of judgment by a machine.

Honda says it can apply much of that knowledge to driverless cars, which many vehicle-makers and industry analysts believe will be a fixture of the next decade.

“Cars until now have had only rudimentary recognition and judgment abilities. The strength of robots is they can work out really sophisticated reactions,” Hiroshi Kawagishi, 51, a longtime Honda engineer, said.

“If we can apply this kind of sophistication on cars, we could come up with something completely different.”

Honda, Volvo Cars, Nissan Motor and others are jockeying against the likes of Google to roll out hands-free cars.

Many are also working on technology that will let these vehicles talk to, and avoid, each other.

Honda’s driverless car push expanded in 2011, when it paired automotive engineers with Kawagishi and other robotics researchers.

That team’s success will help determine if Honda will see a return on three decades worth of work on robots that has cost, by conservative estimate, hundreds of millions of dollars.


Robot benefits?

“What’s going to be the payback?” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research, which manages about $3 billion (R31.8bn) in assets and who doesn’t own Honda shares.

“If you can’t show me that’s going to help the company in the future, within a few years, then you should stop.”

Honda, which hasn’t had an unprofitable year in at least five decades, declined to break out the cost of its robotics efforts. It was estimated to spend about 1 percent of its annual research and development (R&D) budget on robots, Koji Endo, a senior analyst at Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo, said.

That would come out to about $50 million annually, based on the company’s 2012 R&D spending.

Asimo was good for marketing and also generated technologies that could be in vehicles, Tetsuo Iwamura, the Honda executive vice-president, said.

“Investors understand that these two things are meaningful.”

While Honda was a prime mover in robotics and autonomous driving, it would have to focus as others worked on similar technologies, Sethu Vijayakumar, a professor of robotics at the University of Edinburgh, said.

“They will have to start looking into where they will take this technology,” he said.

As commuters across the world face concerns as diverse as urban gridlock and highway safety, the driverless car provides a possible answer. Such cars could shuttle themselves between customers, reducing vehicle ownership and parking snarls.

Cars communicating would move more efficiently, reducing gridlock.

Global sales of such cars were expected to reach 11.8 million in 2035, said Egil Juliussen, an analyst at IHS Automotive, who projected that by 2050 almost all cars would be self-driving.

Honda’s robotics programme is a fixture at a company that has a tradition of keeping its engineers challenged by giving them stints away from automotive projects.

The company also has teams that design jet planes and racing cars.

The robotic legs that Honda engineers designed in 1986 took five to 20 seconds to take each step.

An early humanoid version, P3, was an almost-adult-sized 1.6m.

“It looked a bit dictatorial,” said Satoshi Shigemi, who leads the humanoid robot development team. Asimo is a foot shorter.

“We wanted to make it look like a primary school kid helping his father pick up a newspaper in the morning.”

Honda has said it envisions its robots performing dangerous tasks or assisting the elderly or bedridden.

“I keep training every day so that sometime in the future I can help people in their homes,” an Asimo told the US president on Thursday.

Obama faced the robot and bowed slightly.


Early stumbles

There have been stumbles.

A YouTube video of an Asimo demonstration from the middle of the last decade shows the robot climbing steps, then buckling and falling over.

The latest Asimo can run on uneven surfaces and avoid spills by kicking a leg to counterbalance itself.

Honda’s Iwamura said the company could apply that stability technology to its cars and motorcycles.

Made of magnesium alloy covered with white plastic resin, Asimo is fitted with eight microphones, 14 power sensors that read the direction and amount of force, sonic-wave sensors that detect obstacles as far as 3m away and two stereo cameras that can sweep 120º.

That information is processed by software that lets the robot negotiate obstacles and interpret postures, gestures and faces.

Honda researchers were fine-tuning Asimo’s ability to distinguish between a person walking past and one who wanted to stop and chat, Kawagishi said.

That’s the sort of judgment capability that can be applied to cars.

Asimo’s image-processing technology can recognise whether a pedestrian is leaning forward to cross a street.

Artificial intelligence software could judge quickly enough to react, Yoshiharu Yamamoto, the president of Honda R&D, said.

The challenge would be to adapt those capabilities to cars’ faster speeds, said Takashi Morimoto, a consultant for Frost & Sullivan International, a consulting company.

“Yes, Honda’s Asimo technology is more advanced than others but the challenge is how fast and accurate it can be,” Morimoto said. “It has to make judgment by processing five or six different factors around the car.”

In October, Honda allowed reporters to ride in the rear seat of an autonomous Accord fitted with a stereo camera, two radars and other sensors.

Driving in a demonstration area, the car paused to let a pedestrian cross the road.

It slowed so a motorcycle could pass. It stopped to make way for an unseen vehicle – obscured by a mock-up building – as wi-fi devices on both vehicles communicated with each other.

Honda is facing increasingly intense competition from companies and academics.

Google has bought at least seven companies for a robotics project to expand beyond online search, including Schaft, a Tokyo-based maker of two-legged robots, and Boston Dynamics.

Google has been testing driverless cars mounted with cameras, radar sensors and lasers on US roads.

Honda yesterday forecast a full-year profit that missed analysts’ estimates, as benefits from a weaker yen fade and it increases incentives in the US. The shares rose 1 percent to ¥3 470 (R359) at the close in Tokyo trading, before the earnings announcement.

An edge for its car over rivals can help Honda move up the rankings among carmakers.

In the year to March 2013, Honda posted an operating profit margin of 5.52 percent, behind Toyota’s 5.99 percent over the same period, according to data.

“I don’t think it will be profitable anytime soon,” Mitsushige Akino, the chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Asset Management, said, referring to the Asimo project.

“But it is good for companies to try and invest in new technologies as long as the company itself is profitable.” – Bloomberg