Honda’s new personal mobility technology U3-X

I came across an article yesterday touting the release of Honda’s new personal mobility technology, U3-X (pictured below).

Basically, the U3-X is a stool with a unique directional wheel system that allows it to travel diagonally, as well as right, left, forward, and backward – a robotic unicycle if you will.

When I read the article and saw how the device worked, I thought, “Nice technology, but stupid… who would ever buy one of those things?”

It reminded me of the General Motors joint venture with Segway to develop the PUMA, or Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (pictured below), which was lovingly described by as follows:

Combining the range and speed of an assisted living community golf cart with the cargo-carrying capacity of a pair of bike shorts, the PUMA encompasses much of what the federal government hopes to get out of its investments in the automobile industry. A vehicle that is small, green, and will make people want to take public transportation instead.

It turns out, however, that I judged Honda too quickly. Honda didn’t build the U3-X thinking people would actually buy it. Rather, the U3-X is more about showing off an engineering breakthrough. In this case, Honda contributes to the legs vs. wheels debate among roboticists that has been going on for years.

And therein lies the difference between a company like Honda and a company like GM. Honda is wildly successful (although it has taken sales and earnings hits recently) because of its forward thinking and long-term (I’ve heard 200-year) strategic plan. GM, on the other hand, which thinks people are actually going to show up and buy the PUMA, is a company stuck in the past. (The director of the PUMA project for GM readily admitted: “There’s no technology that has to be invented here. It’s really just putting the pieces together.”)

Although Honda appears slightly overvalued at the moment in terms of fundamentals and GM does not currently trade, I certainly know which one of these companies I will be investing in a little way down the road. And you should too.

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