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Approaching “Wall-E” with Honda’s Uni-Cub personal mobility device

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Honda’s new mobility gadget has me worried.

Yesterday Honda announced a new invention called the Uni-Cub. It’s a cute, “Wall-E” inspired “personal mobility device” engineered to get people from here to there – all without walking. Great! Convenience! It’s a smaller Segway that one pops a squat on (not in that sense, at least not yet) and can be zipped around the office or down the street. With the Segway, one had to – gasp! – stand up while zipping around town looking silly. Not anymore. Now we’ll be able to cruise around large indoor malls, Costcos, and other warehouse shopping experiences from the comfort of our bums (while still looking silly).

“Wall-E” is one of those movies that we’re going to look back on and think, “they were ahead of their time”. The 2008 Pixar film showed us a world not too far off in the future littered with the waste of hyper consumerism, so much so that Earth’s inhabitants left the planet to live in a space liner.

These inhabitants are familiar to us now, yet more sedentary than most of us. Instead of walking around the space liner like most of us would do now, or people did (will do?) in Star Trek – roaming the halls talking to the computer – people in “Wall-E” cruise around on recliners with flat screens while sipping Big Gulps and buying stuff. And they’re large. Very large.

Is that lifestyle really far off? Is it just fantasy?

We’ve been engineering walking out of our daily lives for a long time, from when we learned to ride horses to when the car was invented. Most of us spend most of our days sitting down, whether it’s in our cars, at our office, or on the couch at home. People stand still on the moving walkways in the airport.

In a series for Slate titled “The Crisis of Walking In America“, Tom Vanderbilt goes in to great detail the anathema that is walking, including the revelation that folks in the United States walk the least of any industrialized nation:

The United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. Studies employing pedometers have found that where the average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day (just a few shy of the supposedly ideal “10,000 steps” plateau, itself the product, ironically, of a Japanese pedometer company’s campaign in the 1960s), the average Japanese 7,168, and the average Swiss 9,650, the average American manages only 5,117 steps. Where a child in Britain, according to one study, takes 12,000 to 16,000 steps per day, a similar U.S. study found a range between 11,000 and 13,000.

While we’re walking less and less, we’re getting fatter and fatter. According to a study by RAND, all forms of obesity in the United States have been increasing over the past two decades. That’s not to say it’s all to blame on walking less – there is junk food, high fructose corn syrup, carbohydrate heavy diets, etc – but it certainly plays a role.

Now, before y’all go berserk in the comments, I will concede that a Uni-Cub isn’t all bad news. It could be great for people who have trouble getting around or have injuries/disabilities. But for the vast majority of us who are able bodied, it probably does more harm than good in the long run. It strikes me as technology solving a problem we don’t have. Or worse, technology enabling or exacerbating a problem.

We already offload remembering things and talking to people to technology like Google and Facebook. I don’t think we should do the same for walking.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. patrickh74 11:28 am 05/17/2012

    This product is perfect for America. We are SOOOOO fat and getting fatter. “Go get your UNI-CUB you fatty fat fat!” And get even fatter. As soon as fat people don’t walk their fat bottoms around, those fatties will need a super-sized UNI-CUB. Sad really. There ought to be a doctor’s excuse requirement to be able to have one.

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  2. 2. r0b3m4n 1:27 pm 05/17/2012

    But the big question is whether the uni-cub will be allowed to go through the drive thru. Oh and does it come with a pull cart so I can accessorize?

    But, I hope this author never uses a shopping cart, bags, elevators, cars, bikes, cell phones or other hand tools since those would be detrimental to your prescribed natural physique regimen.

    Yeah, of course, larger people eat more and in general consume more goods and health costs in their life, but, – Wait then what is it that capitalistic America doesn’t like about fat people? More consumption with a shorter life span. ROFL, I think some might call that more optimal.

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  3. 3. Bob_CA 12:05 pm 05/18/2012

    This comes from Japan? As someone who has lived in Tokyo, I ask anyone who knows what the Ginza is like on a weekend afternoon to consider what would happen if everyone were on one of these. Or worse, think of a Tokyo subway at rush hour. It’d be funny to watch, but not to be part of. Honda needs to concentrate on their cars and forget this sort of nonsense.

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  4. 4. katy-dougy 10:28 pm 05/18/2012

    The author apparently has no disabled people in his family. This is an exciting advance and I hope it will allow my father to travel more than the few feet he can now. Laziness and weight issues aren’t the only reasons people can’t move. I am eager to see this on the market and hope we can afford it for him.

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  5. 5. davidwogan 1:12 am 05/19/2012

    Please read the entire post:

    “Now, before y’all go berserk in the comments, I will concede that a Uni-Cub isn’t all bad news. It could be great for people who have trouble getting around or have injuries/disabilities.”

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  6. 6. RonRizzardi 7:52 pm 05/20/2012

    I agree. Active transportation modes are under assault from the very people who need it most. Politically speaking, even though increasingly more americans are choosing options such as a bicycle for recreation and even 3-5 mile errands , the current Congress is determined to remove any and all funding assistance for transporation infrastructure improvements that make cycling and walking safer and convenient. They ( congress ) tells us its not in the national interest. BS. Health care costs, diseases such as diabeter caused by overweight conditions, not to mention the chance to remove ourselves further from dependency on oil. IN 2003, the number of cyclists in that year conserved 11 million barrels of oil.

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    [...] Photo attribution: Scientific American [...]

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  9. 9. ellensimmons 12:45 pm 03/13/2013

    As a European who has spent a lot of time in America, I have observed that one of the biggest contributors to lazy travel habits (or biggest differences to Europe) is space. Unless you live in a city, generally a lot of necessities are clumped together in malls or similar shopping centers, which are too far away to walk or cycle to, usually located along some highway, not on the high-street where most shopping is done in Europe.

    Not only does this encourage traveling by car rather than walking, but it also feeds over-consumption because while at the great big shopping center you had to drive to, ‘you might as well go into one or two more shops and make sure you have everything’ – an attitude that always leads to consuming more.

    Having just read the incredibly misguided comments on Calorie-Lab, regarding the representation of obesity in the film Wall-E ( I have to say, people are really missing the point.

    Regarding mobility and ABILITY in general, – the more automated our products and services become (however convenient they may be), the less engaged we become as consumers. This leads to less active thought, participation, and an infantilisation of the consumer culture.

    I recommend reading “The Case for Working with Your Hands” by Matthew Crawford, for anyone who thinks this level of supposed ‘convenience’ is a step forward.

    OF COURSE for people with disabilities this is a fantastic option – that much is obvious – but the 3 people chosen in the promotional video are over-capable of walking, and in this respect the entire idea is insulting.

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