Hyundai Motor Group said Tuesday that it has officially completed its acquisition of robotics company Boston Dynamics. The deal was announced in December and valued Boston Dynamics at $1.1 billion. The purchase sees Hyundai pick up an 80 percent controlling stake in the company, with the previous owner, Softbank, retaining 20 percent ownership.
The deal will hopefully create a stable home for Boston Dynamics, which has continued to pump out the world’s most impressive robots despite continual ownership changes. The company was spun off from MIT in 1992 and survived for most of its life on DARPA research grants. Google acquired the independent Boston Dynamics in 2013 as part of a brief interest in robotics led by Android co-founder Andy Rubin. Google freed the company from surviving on military contracts, but when Rubin left Google a year later, the executive interest in robotics left with him.
Google sold Boston Dynamics to the Japanese holding company Softbank in 2017 for a reported $165 million, a shockingly low price. By December 2020, Softbank found itself in dire financial straits after some of its other investments went south (Uber, WeWork, OneWeb) and started selling off crown jewels like Arm. Hyundai wanted to invest in more “mobility solutions,” and Softbank was able to flip Boston Dynamics for a tidy profit.
The acquisition is pretty exciting for Boston Dynamics. While the company has been churning out industry-leading robotics work for years, it has all been pure research. Boston Dynamics only started selling a product, the $74,500 robotic dog “Spot,” one year ago. If Boston Dynamics is ever going to sell enough robots to be profitable, getting costs down is essential. Not many companies specialize in the mass production of robotics parts and components, but a car manufacturer seems like a pretty good fit for a company that could make the jump.
Hyundai Motor Group is a top-5 vehicle manufacturer thanks to owning Hyundai Motor Company—the “Hyundai” car brand you’ve been thinking of this whole time—and Kia Motors. Hyundai Motor Group also owns Hyundai Rotem—maker of trains, manufacturing equipment, and military tanks (!)—along with the Hyundai racing team and Hyundai Engineering & Construction. If this is starting to sound complicated, welcome to the world of South Korean conglomerates. Hyundai Motor Group is the second-largest behind Samsung Group. Don’t confuse the Hyundai Motor Group with all these other companies that start with “Hyundai.”
The good news for Boston Dynamics is that Hyundai has tons of experience in building production lines, designing parts for mass production, and saving money via economies of scale. These are all things a formerly research-focused robotics company probably doesn’t have much expertise in.
The press release says as much: “The deal is also expected to allow the [Hyundai Motor] Group and Boston Dynamics to leverage each other’s respective strengths in manufacturing, logistics, construction and automation. Together, the Group and Boston Dynamics will create a robotics value chain, from robot component manufacturing to smart logistics solutions. Additionally, the Group will support Boston Dynamics’ continued expansion of its product line and global sales and service footprint.”
Boston Dynamics has sold “hundreds” of units of its Spot robotic dog (including to SpaceX) for at least $74,500 each. There are a host of accessories for Spot, like a charging dock, a robotic arm that lets it open doors and turn valves, and various cameras for remote inspection of dangerous areas. The company also sells the “Pick” vision software for robotic arms, allowing third-party hardware to intelligently depalletize boxes. Boston Dynamics’ second commercial robot will be “Stretch,” a depalletizing robot built for flexible mobile warehouse work. Stretch is due out on the market in 2022. The other current project at the company is “Atlas,” a humanoid research platform.
Listing image by Hyundai Motor Group