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This year April 7-15 is National Robotics Week, enacted by a resolution of the U.S. Congress and sponsored by a consortium of businesses and universities. The auto industry in not just one of the leading consumers of robotic devices used in production, it has also embraced the idea of using humanoid robots as public relations tools. Perhaps the best known is Asimo, Honda’s robot, but Toyota has its own Partner Robot program. Both of those efforts are aimed at creating actual functioning robots, but plenty of carmakers have built “robots” that they use in their auto show displays.
Mostly likely inspired by Robby the Robot from a series of 1950s science fiction movies (and also, probably, the ’60s tv show, Lost In Space, car companies in the 1960s started building display robots. Chrysler had a large static robot built from car bodies and other parts called the Zookeeper, which stood watch over a menagerie made from automotive components at their exhibit in the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
Ford built a series of humanoid robots called Freddie Ford, made of automotive components. Standing 9 feet tall and weighing 800 lbs, Gen II Freddie came with console that allowed show visitors to interact with “him” by asking questions from a list. In the early 1970s, Freddie was updated with a LCD panel. Currently, Ford has a couple of much more sophisticated robots on the show circuit, under the name Hank the Ford Robot, obviously named after Henry Ford. Hank is a fully articulated robot with functioning arms and legs, controlled by a backstage operator, who interacts with and answers questions from show attendees. With their product placement deal with director Michale Bay, it’s not surprising that Chevy has brought a huge Bumblebee Transformer to car shows. Even Kia has gotten into the auto show robot game, bringing a life size toy robot (with an actor inside) from their “sock monkey” series of ads to press previews, which Ray Wert of Jalopnik promptly characterized as “creepy”.