It seems inevitable that one day most vehicles won’t come with steering wheels, but who says an autonomous vehicle has to look like a traditional car? XPeng, a Chinese maker of electric vehicles, has proposed an alternate mode of autonomous transportation: a rideable robotic unicorn that provides not only transportation but companionship too.
Years ago, Boston Dynamics demonstrated the equivalent of a robotic pack mule called BigDog that was designed to move cargo across uneven terrains that are unaccessible to wheeled vehicles and was more than strong enough to carry human passengers. But the program was eventually scrapped because the robot was just too loud for military maneuvers that often needed to be carried out in stealth mode. The technology that powered BigDog later found its way into Boston Dynamics’ Spot: a four-legged robot dog that was more nimble and quiet. Unfortunately, Spot is too small for anyone to climb aboard and ride it.
That’s not to say that people haven’t tried turning Spot into an alternate means of transportation. Adam Savage created a single-person rickshaw that Boston Dynamics’ $74,500 toy can easily pull around, but Spot simply wasn’t designed to ferry humans around, so XPeng found an opportunity to fill that very specific niche through the company’s robotics division. (Does every automaker secretly have one now?)
The XPeng Robotic Unicorn is, unfortunately, missing a really cool name (c’mon, Pengasus was right there) but it promises a future many of us are more than happy to sign up for right now. The current prototype, which makes an appearance at the end of this CG-heavy demo video, features AI technologies borrowed from XPeng’s autonomous vehicle initiatives. The company promises the unicorn will feature the ability to recognize and track different objects allowing it to autonomously navigate various terrains and environments, even while maintaining a jaunty prance, which is admittedly the number one feature I’ve been hoping autonomous vehicles would deliver.
XPeng also promises the AI will imbue its robo-unicorn with the ability to emotionally interact with whoever climbs aboard, which is a feature that not even Tesla is promising with its own autonomous vehicles. Unfortunately, there seems to be no word on whether or not XPeng actually plans to put the robo-unicorn into production. Further complicating my commuting fantasy is the fact that the current prototype of the robot unicorn is only scaled to accommodate children as riders. Hopefully, the robot’s design makes it easily scalable, because a future where I can’t proudly trot into the office every morning is a future I want no part of.