The multimillion-dollar hypercar business is booming. The world’s ultra-wealthy have dozens and dozens of different outrageously expensive, high-performance toys to choose from, like the Rimac Nevera or the Mercedes-AMG Project One. Some are so extreme, they’re not even street-legal.
But what’s a tech-forward multibillionaire who’s more into anime than motorsports to do with their discretionary fund?
The Tsubame Archax might be the answer. This is, quite simply, a Gundam fan’s dream made a reality: a 15-foot-tall, $3 million mecha that works just like the real thing — well, minus a few pesky details like jet boosters, laser swords, and the neural interfaces explored in many of Gundam’s various (and conflicting) timelines.
Made in Japan
You don’t earn any bonus points for guessing where this thing was made. It’s at the Japan Mobility Show, where I got up close and personal with the $3 million machine and spoke with the team behind it. The first product of Yokohama-based Tsubame, Archax is the result of four years of research and development.
And what a result it is. Inside the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition hall, a massive place by any standard, Archax towers over the pedestrian supercars and concept machines that dot the space. Every hour or so, Tsubame employees run it through a simple demo, where it lifts its arms, waves to the crowd, and transforms from Robot mode to Vehicle mode and back again.
Yes, the Archax is a Transformer of sorts. Like the Autobots, it can roll out, but you won’t be confusing this for a VW Beetle or Kenworth K100. Here, it’s more like morphing between two variations on the same theme.
A quadruped on wheels
The Archax has four legs, but it doesn’t walk on them as such. At the bottom of each is a Yokohama industrial tire of the sort you’d mount on a forklift, each driven by an electric motor. In Vehicle mode, Archax’s four legs are spread apart, lowering the center of gravity and enabling its maximum speed of about 6mph.
But for wowing your friends or scaring your neighbors, convert it into Robot mode, and it rises to its full height of 15 feet.
The transformation is simple by Optimus Prime standards but still quite a sight to behold — and to hear. Myriad electric motors throughout the chassis all whir into action to hoist the 3.5-ton machine up to its full height, a process that takes about 15 seconds.
That’s nothing compared to the drama of the cockpit opening mechanism. From the outside, the pilot needs to hold a switch situated on the bottom left of the Archax’s chassis. Four separate hatches move in sync to provide access to the lone driver’s chair inside, a fluid motion that is very much inspired by Gundam robots.
In fact, everything was inspired by the Gundam series. Tsubame CTO Akinori Ishii is the technical director at the Gundam Global Challenge, the group responsible for the full-size Gundam RX-78F00 — which also lives in Yokohama.
“The designer, he is a young Japanese, inspired by so many animations,” Ishii told me. “It’s his original design, but I think the essence came from the Gundam animation.”
The project as a whole is the brainchild of CEO Ryo Yoshida, who posted early pictures of the Archax design on Twitter. Ishii messaged him on there and was hired to help bring the project to life.
“The first step is focused on the hobbyist and entertainment,” Ishii told me. But the company has bigger goals than that. After all five units of the Archax are sold out, Ishii wants to take a cue from the 2014 Godzilla reboot and let them fight.
Tsubame wants to create a sort of robot combat league, but not with giant mechs beating each other down Robot Jox-style. “We want to fight using a few units. Not actual combat, but using virtual reality, so in the actual reality using real robots, the fighting is using the virtual reality technology, like a game,” he said. So imagine real robots zipping around a real battlefield, launching Itano Circus-style volleys of virtual missiles at each other. “That is the next step.”
But even that is small in comparison to where Ishii eventually wants the company to go: space and, more specifically, the Moon. Ishii formerly worked as an engineer at Hitachi, a global manufacturer that sells hundreds of construction and excavation machines, many of which are optimized for specific tasks.
“On Earth, there are many specialized machines for special work,” he said. “On a moon base, we are not able to have so many machines. So, maybe a human-like machine will be used in such a situation.”
Down to earth
That’s a long way to go, both literally and metaphorically considering today’s Archax can’t really do much of anything useful. It can lift objects in its hands, up to about 20 kilograms (44 pounds), but the big mech isn’t really suited for precise work. Basic controls are a pair of joysticks for controlling the arms, with a touch panel through which the pilot can toggle discrete functions like lights and modes.
A pair of pedals control the Archax’s movement. The one on the right rocks forward and back to control speed ahead and in reverse. The pedal on the left rocks side to side and is used to turn the mech.
The cockpit is completely enclosed, again like a Gundam, with the pilot seeing the world through footage captured from 26 wide-angle cameras that you can see scattered around the mech. That footage is then stitched together on a trio of displays that enclose the pilot.
The final controls? Big red emergency stop buttons, found not only inside the cockpit but also outside on the legs. Safety is very definitely a priority for Ishii and the rest of the Tsubame team, all of whom donned helmets whenever the thing was in motion.
It’s quite a sight to behold when it moves, and I know that by now you’re surely wondering what it’s like to pilot the thing. Sadly, that’s a question I can’t answer. “Only the person who purchased the Archax can ride it,” Yoshida told me after I asked (repeatedly) for a go. That is a little out of my price range, a situation that won’t change soon.
I asked Ishii whether a next-generation Archax might be a little more affordable. He pondered the question for a few moments and then laughed.