Autonomous mobility pods of the future could gain themselves exceptional tight-space maneuvering capabilities if Protean's 360-degree integrated wheel systems come to fruition. Each one packs steering, suspension, motors and pneumatic ride-height adjustment into a single unit.
We first encountered Protean back in 2013 when the company began pushing its powerful hub motors for the automotive sector. But, powerful and responsive as they might be, hub motors have found it difficult to make a mark in standard automotive settings. They're obviously a lot heavier than a standard wheel, which adds weight just where you don't want it on a performance vehicle: below the suspension. They're also exposed to damage from road grime and rocks.
But autonomous people-moving pods are an emerging market that couldn't care less about unsprung weight or high speeds. The priorities for mobility pod designers will be space, efficiency and suitability for driverless solutions, and Protean's latest offering is tailor made to fit the bill.
The Protean360+ corner module is a self-contained, all-in-one drivetrain, suspension and steering assembly for autonomous electrics. We wrote about a similar solution from Israel's REE just last week. But where REE is looking to make the most flexible package possible, as useful for performance vehicles and heavy-hauling trucks as it is for autonomous systems, Protean is targeting its offering directly at the pods.
Each Protean360+ unit comprises a ProteanDrive hub motor, rim and tire, and a miniature double-wishbone suspension system with a damper mounted in a steering arm that can rotate the entire unit 360 degrees or pneumatically raise and lower the chassis above it.
Mount one of these on each corner of a skateboard chassis full of battery, and you get yourself a vehicle you can stick a nice big, roomy people pod on top of, with fully electronic control over drive, braking, chassis lift and steering, and each wheel being able to rotate a full 360 degrees. That means your little pod can happily move sideways in and out of tight parallel parking spots, or turn super-fast donuts on the spot as your horrified passengers vomit all over the advertising screens you've installed to squeeze a few extra bucks out of your mobility pod business.
When it stops to let people in and out, it can lower itself right down to ground level, making life easy for oldies, youngsters and wheelchair users as they hop in and out.
Currently, on Protean's diagrams, each hub motor is listed as one of Protean's Pd18 units, meaning 80 kW (107 hp) and 1,250 Nm (922 lb-ft) of torque per wheel. I probably don't have to tell you that a total of 320 kW (430 hp) and 5,000 Nm (3,688 lb-ft) is probably a wee bit excessive for a driverless pod capable of accelerating sideways. But there's no reason these couldn't be replaced with much more humble units in a production version.
Certainly, this Protean system doesn't appear as clever as REE's all-encompassing modular units, with their lightweight rims, efficient transmissions, high-speed motors and endless steering and suspension options. And we're not a huge fan of what looks like some major electrical cabling getting exposed to stones, grit and road grime. But then, the Protean system's pneumatic lift and 360-degree rotation may well prove to be killer features in the autonomous world we keep hearing is just around the corner. Time will tell.
Enjoy a video of a potential driverless future below.
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