CES preview: Honda shows flair for design with these four stylish robots

The company has played second fiddle to Toyota in recent years, but a new strategy is yielding rapid development

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Honda will debut four robot concepts at CES this January.

From the look of early photos, robot aesthetics are about to get a lot sleeker.

The new units are part of the company's 3E robotics concept, which stands for empower, experience, and empathy. In a release, the company says the robots will demonstrate "Honda's vision of a society where robotics and AI can assist people in many situations, such as disaster recovery, recreation and learning from human interaction to become more helpful and empathetic."

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One of the new robots is a companion that "shows compassion to humans with a variety of facial expressions." Another is a chair-type mobility concept "designed for casual use in indoor or outdoor spaces." There's also a small-sized transport vehicle for carrying cargo like groceries.

The fourth concept looks a lot like an ATV. Honda says the autonomous vehicle is designed for heavy use "to support people in a broad range of work activities."

Robotics has come a long way since Honda debuted its first ASIMO humanoid in 2000. Rival Toyota has been a bigger player in the space of late, thanks to its $1 billion investment in the Silicon Valley-based Toyota Research Institute in 2016.

TRI is led by Dr. Gill Pratt, previously program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. In addition to internal development, it's made an aggressive push to acquire technology from promising startups. TRI announced in July it would invest $100 million in startups focusing on artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous mobility, and data and cloud technology.

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Honda seems to be responding in kind. It recently teamed up with a handful of smaller companies to develop technology to support its robotics and mobility efforts. Those companies include BRAIQ, which creates technology to bridge the gap between human preferences and artificial intelligence "to personalize the driving style of autonomous vehicles," and Tactual Labs, which "brings real-time human body pose sensing to every surface and voxel."

Last month, Honda Innovations announced it will be expanding its engagement of startup ecosystems in Japan, China, Detroit, and Europe through accelerator and early-stage development programs. The effort is aimed at snatching up emerging technologies that will feed into Honda's driving and mobility efforts.

Alongside the robots debuting at CES, Honda will also showcase a swappable battery pack for electric vehicles.

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