The future? A car that walks on four legs
When experts ponder the future of automobiles, they tend to focus on two novel modes of transportation: driverless cars and flying cars.
At this year's CES technology show in Las Vegas, Hyundai has introduced a third vision for how vehicles might traverse the world around them - one that doesn't rely solely on wheels.
More than 2,000 years after the wheelbarrow's debut in classical Greece, ushering in a new era of locomotion, Hyundai's latest concept car is designed to walk as easily as it rolls. Called "Elevate," the daddy-long-legs-like machine has wheels at the end of long robotic legs that would allow "users to drive, walk or even climb over the most treacherous terrain," according to the company.
The company - which labels the machine a UMV, or "ultimate mobility vehicle" - said the concept was inspired by the need for "resilient transportation" in disaster zones, where conventional vehicles are often rendered useless.
"When a tsunami or earthquake hits, current rescue vehicles can only deliver first responders to the edge of the debris field," John Suh, Hyundai vice president and head of Hyundai CRADLE, said in a statement on the company's website. "They have to go the rest of the way by foot. Elevate can drive to the scene and climb right over flood debris or crumbled concrete."
Suh added that the vehicle's usefulness wouldn't be limited to emergency situations. For people living with disabilities without access to an ADA ramp, the statement said, an autonomous version of the Elevate could walk to a front door and position itself so that a wheelchair could "roll right in."
How realistic is the Elevate concept?
David Bailey, a professor at Aston Business School in England, told the BBC that although concept cars may not make it to the factory floor, they can help generate valuable new ideas.
"For most of us, it's going to be wheels and roads, but in extreme situations there may be scope for this sort of thing," Bailey said. "There may well be applications in terms of emergency services - but there are very big technological challenges to make this sort of thing."
Hyundai's vision is undeniably ambitious. The company said it envisions being able to switch out different Elevate body types for different situations. The vehicle is designed to utilize "both mammalian and reptilian walking gaits," giving it the ability to travel in any direction, the company said, noting that the legs fold up into a "stowed drive-mode" to save power.
Those legs, the company said, would be able to climb over a five-foot wall and step across a five-foot gap.
A concept video produced by Hyundai shows the vehicle performing a mixture of driving and walking. When the surface is relatively flat, the vehicle turns to conventional wheels, but when the terrain grows craggy, the vehicle's wheels appear to lock into place and its legs extend, taking synchronized steps forward.
When surrounded by massive chunks of concrete from what appears to be a collapsed structure, Elevate is shown leveling itself on an incline so that rescuers can load a stretcher inside.
"Imagine a car stranded in a snow ditch just 10 feet off the highway being able to walk or climb over the treacherous terrain, back to the road, potentially saving its injured passengers - this is the future of vehicular mobility," said David Byron, industrial design manager at Sundberg-Ferar, a Detroit-based design firm that partnered with Hyundai to create the Elevate.