Cruise, the self-driving vehicle company backed by General Motors, has revealed that it has a prototype wheelchair-accessible robotaxi that could begin picking up disabled passengers as early as next year.
The introduction of the accessible robotaxi is an important step towards realizing the dream of people with visual, hearing and mobility disabilities, who have long hoped that autonomous vehicles represent a new way of getting around.
The vehicle is a larger version of Cruise's fully autonomous vehicles, called Origin, that lack traditional controls such as a steering wheel and pedals.
It has been modified to include a retractable ramp, as well as additional space inside and floor clamps for wheelchair users. The vehicle is the result of three years of development and testing between Cruise, GM and their partners in accessible vehicle design, BraunAbility and Q'Straint.
More than 25 million Americans have disabilities that make it difficult to travel outside their homes. Historically, automotive companies have produced vehicles that are inaccessible or cost thousands of dollars to accommodate a driver with disabilities. Traditional transportation services are notoriously inaccessible and often refuse to serve people with disabilities. Autonomous vehicles, and especially robotaxis, now present a tempting solution.
Cruise says it has taken the accessibility issue seriously from day one, hiring a full-time accessibility program manager for its fleet of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco. Cruise claims that he built the Origin, his first purpose-built autonomous vehicle, with modularity in mind. From the low floor to the high roof, to the double doors and removable seats, Cruise sees the Origin as a blank canvas that he can modify based on customer feedback.
So far, it can only accommodate people using specific brands of wheelchairs, such as Permobil M-Series, Quantum Q6 Edge, and SM Quickie Q500/700M/Q7 chairs. Cruise states that people who use manual wheelchairs may need the help of a companion to secure the straps.
The new affordable variant will begin closed-circuit testing next month. Pending regulatory approval as well as user feedback, the accessible Origin could hit the streets for pilot testing starting in 2024.