Cars and trucks get stuck in mud, sand, and other types of rough terrain. And at times, rescue vehicles can’t make it to remote places where there’s a risk that they won’t be able to drive out.
The Korean carmaker Hyundai decided to seek a solution to these problems; since 2020, the company has invested in designing what it calls ultimate mobility vehicles (UMVs). It set up the New Horizons Studio, focused on UMVs and headquartered in Fremont, California, near San Francisco. It has since expanded the studio’s operations to Boston, Massachusetts, and Bozeman, Montana.
The New Horizons Studio team is administered by the Hyundai America Technical Center, Inc. (HATCI), and reports in to the R&D Division of Hyundai. It has between 15 and 25 people on it.
John Suh, Founding Director of New Horizons Studio, said the development of this new class of vehicle has big implications for the future of many industries. He explained how the idea came to be; how the studio develops and tests its vehicles; and why the studio decided to expand to Bozeman, rather than another larger technology hub.
Development and Usage of UMVs
Suh said the idea for Hyundai’s UMVs came about over a decade ago.
“We asked… ‘What if you could add legs to a car and make it walk?’” he said. “If you could do that, that could represent a breakthrough in vehicle design, because there’s no such thing today.”
Suh said UMVs can serve a variety of purposes — from public safety, to natural resource management, to construction and development. He said he sees forestry, agriculture, ranching, firefighting, search and rescue, mining, and more as potential industries that could benefit from the production of UMVs.
His team has worked on both adding legs to cars and on leveling the chassis of vehicles, which helps ensure the vehicles won’t flip, a common problem in rough terrain for current vehicles.
“It’s sometimes [a] requirement to keep the chassis level relative to gravity, not to [the] ground — because obviously, the ground can be tilted; you want to keep it level to gravity,” Suh explained.
In many cases, current technology is relatively primitive. For instance, in today’s off-road search and rescue operations, sometimes, the only way to move a victim is in a “glorified wheelbarrow,” Suh said.
“You’ll have GPS and satellite communications, [but] there’s a huge disconnect between the communications and the extraction — which is in a wheelbarrow.”
But the capabilities extend far beyond search and rescue operations.
“It’s really about anywhere we need to have mobility, but we’re limited by the fact that a vehicle would have a very difficult or impossible time to get over that terrain. There are a lot of places, thankfully, that are not covered [by] roads,” Suh said. “I mean, that is another solution… But maybe you don’t want to be making roads, ad infinitum, wherever you want to go.”
His team has begun testing its vehicles near its recently constructed center in Bozeman, Montana.
Hyundai invested $20 million this year to build a test center in Bozeman, Montana, on the campus of Montana State University.
Suh said setting up shop in Bozeman came with a variety of advantages for New Horizons Studio.
One of the major advantages? Proximity to difficult terrain.
“Within an hour’s drive of Bozeman, we can get to quite a bit of land that would give us the use cases [and] scenarios that we’d be looking at,” he said.
To establish a large team over time, over time in Silicon Valley, I would anticipate to be very challenging for us — partly because of the level of competition for talent in the area.
Being in Bozeman also means that Hyundai’s new testing facility is far from the Silicon Valley job market. Suh said he sees that as an advantage.
“To establish a large team over time, over time in Silicon Valley, I would anticipate to be very challenging for us — partly because of the level of competition for talent in the area. The talent availability is one thing, but I think for us, talent retention is the bigger issue,” he said. “In Bozeman, I think we will be a unique employer. We would anticipate less of a talent retention issue, because there are fewer companies like ours — if any — that are doing the same or similar work.”
He said he also sees Bozeman as an emerging technology hub with the potential to grow, and with a robust pipeline of engineering talent, like graduates of the University of Montana.
Prototyping at New Horizons Studio
It’s a matter of understanding what you think you know, and making sure you test that… and giving yourself some ability to react to the new unknowns you discover.
Suh’s team at New Horizons Studio starts with a digital prototype of everything it makes.
“We start with digital; that’s the reference. Whatever we make physically is the twin of the digital,” he said.
From there, the technologies are tested incrementally, part by part.
“As we learn, obviously, we make improvements to the digital version. It’s a matter of understanding what you think you know, and making sure you test that… and giving yourself some ability to react to the new unknowns you discover,” Suh explained.
Vision for the Studio’s Future — Autonomous Vehicles?
He said testing digitally is advantageous because he expects end users will control many of the vehicles remotely, without having to be physically present.
“How somebody uses this product will be through a digital interface, we think. If it’s a remote operation, the operator will not be at that location — it’s either too far away, or too dangerous or not cost effective for a human to be there,” he said. “We do think eventually, what a consumer buys [will be] access to a vehicle, but not the vehicle itself,” similar to software-as-service or a leasing model.
Some of the vehicles will be autonomous, but many of them will remained operated by humans, Suh said.
“I think we want to have both options, where your vehicle can be driven by a person… That could be remote, but it could be on board,” Suh said. “But certainly, I think we’ll have to have autonomous versions that — either supervised or unsupervised — are operating in an environment that a customer would have control over a fleet of these vehicles. We’re planning to have both options available.”