Imagine if an emergency vehicle could not only bring the team of responders to the edge of the disaster zone but actually step right in, striding over top flaming rubble to get responders exactly where they need to be. Forget last mile, that's last 100 yards. And that's the all-new Hyundai Elevate concept, moving through the world on fully articulated wheeled legs that let it climb vertical walls, hop over crevasses, crawl like a reptile and quietly cruise the highway on a sunny day.
Developed in a partnership between Hyundai's CRADLE disruptive innovations incubator and Detroit product innovation studio Sundberg-Ferar, the Elevate blends the worlds of robotic and automotive design to become an "ultimate mobility vehicle" (UMV). The concept has been in the works for well over two years and was imagined specifically with emergency response in mind.
"When a tsunami or earthquake hits, current rescue vehicles can only deliver first responders to the edge of the debris field," explains John Suh, Hyundai vice president. "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."
In order to achieve this level of mobile autonomy, the Elevate leaves behind conventions like axles and suspension wishbones, replacing them with individually powered wheels mounted to robotic legs. Each leg includes five degrees of movement via integrated vertical and horizontal hip joints, a knee joint, an ankle joint and a rotational steering joint that spins the wheel 360 degrees around a vertical axis. Hub motors in the wheels team to provide propulsive power.
During normal highway driving, the legs compact inward toward the body, allowing the Elevate to drive along like any electric car. A passive suspension system takes over cushioning in this mode, and power to the leg joint actuators is cut to improve range and efficiency.
When flat ground gives way to ultra-bumpy rock or rubble, the Elevate can use the height and power of its legs to react, standing tall and clearing large obstacles, crawling along like a reptile, climbing walls up to 5 feet (1.5 m) high, stepping over holes up to 5 feet across or spreading its track to a full 15 feet (4.6 m). In this way, the driver can negotiate terrain that would be deemed impassable for any other auto, defeating obstacles like large boulders, deep snow and steep hills, all while the vehicle body stays completely level.
The drive motors and electric actuators powering the Elevate are wired to a 66-kWh battery pack. Project engineers arrived at the battery size by running simulations of the Rubicon Trail, and determining the onboard battery capacity required to power the leg articulation and propulsion involved in traveling the entirety of the rugged 22-mile (35-km) American trail.
Emergency response remains a major driver behind the design, but it's not the only use Hyundai and Sundberg-Ferar have come up with. In fact, the Elevate is modular, the legged electric chassis able to accept various body types for different use cases.
"People living with disabilities worldwide that don't have access to an ADA ramp could hail an autonomous Hyundai Elevate that could walk up to their front door, level itself, and allow their wheelchair to roll right in," Suh gives as another example.
Hyundai debuted the Elevate concept at CES 2019 on Tuesday. You won't be seeing it walking past your living room window just yet, but you can have a closer look in the video below.