Lego is known for faithfully re-creating some of the world's most famous vehicles in bricks, including the spectacular Bugatti Chiron and Porsche 911 GT3 RS. But why should the company limit itself to copying the real world when it could dream up the future instead?
Enter the Zeux, an autonomous concept wheel loader dreamed up by design teams from Lego and Volvo CE. Lego has previously replicated a real wheel loader and wheeled excavator manufactured by Volvo CE. This bit of heavy equipment is unlike anything you can see at a real-life building site today, but it's also the digital prototype that will fuel the designs for future Volvo CE concepts.
How can you tell this is no ordinary digger? First of all there's no space for a human to sit. Oh, and it comes with a friendly drone scout. There's also a moving boom-mounted camera on the roof that acts as an "eye", suggesting that our future relationship with automated machinery won't be entirely cold and one-sided.
Lego worked with children during the Zeux's design process and found that the kids had little trouble getting their heads around the concept of an autonomous piece of machinery. Including the drone helped them make the connection between the absence of a passenger seat and the idea that someone must still be driving the thing.
"As soon as we have a mapping drone sat next to this vehicle, they tell us all the stories about where this machine could go. Because to them of course there's no one driving [the Zeux], of course it's autonomous," said Andrew Woodman, a senior design manager at Lego.
"They understand that this machine is something different because there is no driver's cab. There is a camera, there is this little mapping drone. And they tell us lots of stories about how it could go in dangerous environments, how it could go places that we can't go to," he added.
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It took some time to settle on the moving camera, according to Woodman. He told me the team began designing a camera for the vehicle before realising that the concept Zeux would have enough sensors to move around autonomously and wouldn't need a camera.
"And then we kind of realised that, no, the machine doesn't need it, but maybe we need it. So by having this camera, which can sort of just turn to look at you, it gives you that confidence to know that the machine has seen you."
It's a little like the way we instinctively make eye contact with a car's driver before crossing a road. The mighty Zeux may not have anyone visibly operating it, but it's still capable of reassuring bystanders that it's not about to crash into them. Assuming those hypothetical bystanders aren't troubled by a big moving eye on a stick.
The Zeux is over 7 inches (18cm) high, 8 inches (21cm) wide and 23 inches (59cm) long. Retract the counterbalance and it's still over 20 inches (51cm) long. It runs for up to five hours on a 150-kwh battery, which powers the moving boom, bucket and camera as well as the machine's movement and steering.
And while Volvo CE has no plans to transform this specific prototype into a reality, elements of its design will make their way into future vehicles.
Scott Young, director of electro-mobility at Volvo CE, told me that for him this project was all about removing the restrictions faced by designers working on conventional machines. The concepts will then move through the development process and eventually feed into the real-life vehicles the company's working on.
"There's technologies that are in the Zeux that we actually are working on today and we have in prototypes that we've shared. Though it doesn't look anything like this," he said, gesturing to the model.
By bringing the two teams together, Lego's Andrew Woodman says the Zeux was able to draw on the combined expertise of Volvo CE's mechanical experts and a crew of creative Lego designers who weren't used to being told their ideas couldn't be done.
"You get the knowledge and you get this kind of naivety and you put it together and [the Zeux] is kind of like the result of that," he said.
The Lego Zeux will be on sale in all markets from August this year. Pricing information isn't available yet, but we'll update this page as soon as we have the details.
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