In 1986 Honda built a pair of robotic legs that could walk in a line. A decade later it added an upper body. Last week in Tokyo, Honda's latest robot, Asimo, met its first world leader: It chatted in English with US President Barack Obama then ran, jumped and kicked a soccer ball.
For its next trick, Honda believes, Asimo will give it an edge in building the car of the future.
The kid-size robot, which can also acknowledge a raised hand and track three conversations at once, is the product of three decades of work in image processing, voice recognition and artificial intelligence - essentially, the pursuit of judgment by a machine. Honda says it can apply much of that knowledge to driverless cars, which many believe will be a fixture of the next decade.
"Cars until now have had only rudimentary recognition and judgment abilities. The strength of robots is they can work out really sophisticated reactions," said Honda engineer Hiroshi Kawagishi. "If we can apply this kind of sophistication on cars, we could come up with something completely different."
Honda, Volvo Cars, Nissan and others are jockeying against the likes of Google to roll out hands-free cars. Many are also working on technology that will let these vehicles talk to, and avoid, each other. Honda's driverless car push expanded in 2011, when it paired auto engineers with Kawagishi and other robotics researchers.
That team's success will help determine if Honda will see a return on three decades of work on robots that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Honda, which hasn't had an unprofitable year in at least five decades, declined to break out the cost of its robotics efforts. It is estimated to spend about 1 per cent of its annual research and development budget on robots, said Koji Endo, senior analyst at Advanced Research Japan. That would come out to about $50 million annually.
Asimo is good for marketing and generates technologies that can be used in vehicles, said Tetsuo Iwamura, Honda executive vice-president.
While Honda is a prime mover in robotics and autonomous driving, it will have to focus as others work on similar technologies, said Sethu Vijayakumar, professor of robotics at the University of Edinburgh. "They will have to start looking into where they will take this technology."
As commuters face concerns as diverse as urban gridlock and highway safety, the driverless car provides one possible answer. Such cars could shuttle themselves between customers, reducing vehicle ownership and parking snarls. Cars communicating in a common language would move more efficiently, reducing gridlock.
Global sales of such cars are expected to reach 11.8 million in 2035, said Egil Juliussen, an analyst at IHS Automotive, who projects by 2050 almost all cars will be self-driving.
The robotic legs that Honda engineers designed in 1986 took five to 20 seconds to take each step. An early humanoid version, P3, was an almost-adult-sized 63 inches (160cm).
"It looked a bit dictatorial," said Satoshi Shigemi, who leads the humanoid robot development team. Asimo is a foot shorter. "We wanted it [to] look like a primary school kid."
Honda has said it envisions its robots performing dangerous tasks or assisting the elderly or bedridden.
"I keep training every day so that sometime in the future I can help people in their homes," an Asimo told the US President.
There have been stumbles. A YouTube video of an Asimo demonstration from the middle of the last decade shows the robot climbing steps, then buckling and falling over. The latest Asimo can run on uneven surfaces and avoid spills by kicking a leg to counterbalance itself. Honda's Iwamura said the company can apply that stability technology to its cars.
Made of magnesium alloy covered with white plastic resin, Asimo is fitted with eight microphones, 14 power sensors that read the direction and amount of force, sonic-wave sensors that detect obstacles as far as three metres away, and two stereo cameras.
That information is processed by software that lets the robot negotiate obstacles and interpret postures, gestures and faces. Honda researchers are fine-tuning Asimo's ability to distinguish between a person walking past and one who wants to stop and chat, said Kawagishi.
That's the sort of judgment capability that can be applied to cars: Asimo's image-processing technology can recognise whether a pedestrian is leaning forward to cross a street.
The challenge will be to adapt those capabilities to cars' faster speeds, said Takashi Morimoto, consultant for Frost & Sullivan International.