Creepy videos of a five-legged robot dog opening a door and back-flipping headless humanoid robots that can outrun you have gripped viewers for years. Boston Dynamics’s technology impressed both Alphabet and SoftBank enough for each to acquire the US robotics group. Making money from these cyborgs was a different story. Hyundai Motors has stepped up next to try its luck.
The South Korean automaker will buy an 80 per cent stake from SoftBank valuing Boston Dynamics at $1.1bn. SoftBank bought the company for a reported $100m from Alphabet three years ago.
That looks pricey for a company that has changed hands a few times in the past decade. Top talent has been lost on the way. Meanwhile, commercialisation of its robot dogs will not happen soon.
Yet Hyundai could make the deal worthwhile, even without selling a single robot dog. For years, it has planned to develop a car that sprouts legs for extreme terrain. The deal would save Hyundai years of research for the walking concept car it showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show last year. Hyundai wants a fifth of its future sales to come from robotics.
There are good reasons for this. Since the company’s labour union was formed in 1987, strikes have been a regular occurrence, many lasting weeks. Analysts estimate lost production from strikes to be as much $1.7bn a year. The sensors, arms and bipedal walking technology of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, a humanoid robot, could be integrated into Hyundai’s production lines, starting with repetitive tasks.
Hyundai subsidiaries in car parts and logistics also require automation. Boston Dynamics’ background in military contracting, halted under Alphabet, should come in useful for Hyundai’s defence subsidiary. Meanwhile, Hyundai’s production capabilities offer Boston Dynamics’ technology wider use.
All that, however, will depend on how forcefully Hyundai can integrate the new robotic technologies, given its feisty unions. Without some worker co-operation, the chances are high that yet another buyer will be reviewing the sticker price at Boston Dynamics in a few years time.
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