Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives

Approaching "Wall-E" with Honda's Uni-Cub personal mobility device


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.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article