You’ve Heard of Self-Driving Cars. Now Here Comes the Self-Driving Scooter

Researchers hope the devices will give mobility to the elderly and people with disabilities and connect them to autonomous cars and buses.
An autonomous mobility scooter goes on a test run. (Photo: MIT)
Nov 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

One of the great promises of self-driving cars has been the expectation that they could provide easy mobility for the elderly, the visually impaired, or people with other disabilities who can’t drive.

There’s just one problem with that: Autonomous cars can’t help you get down a hallway—or anywhere else indoors for that matter.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the National University of Singapore, and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have developed one possible solution to the accessibility gap: a self-driving electric scooter that would autonomously transport passengers down hospital hallways, through shopping malls, or directly to self-driving cars, buses, or other vehicles.

The system, which recently underwent its first major trial, uses the same software and sensors being used in autonomous cars and golf carts. “The idea is we would provide a unified autonomy solution from your living room all the way to your destination,” said robotics pioneer Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and one of the project’s leaders.

Rus said she saw the value of this transportation system when she visited a retirement facility in Singapore a few years ago. “It was about 2 p.m., and a lot of people were doing karaoke in this room that had no air conditioning and was very hot,” she said. “The staff said they simply did not have enough people to transport the residents individually to visit their friends or go to the doctor or go shopping.” Instead, the facility had to organize group events that could be handled by a single staff person.

“If you had a system of wheelchairs that could take people around in a flexible way, it would make a much easier system,” Rus noted.

The researchers’ goal is to create such a complete solution rather than just deploy individual scooters. That’s another one of the promises of self-driving vehicles: on-demand systems that let passengers use an app or other online option to order whatever vehicles they need. A vehicle would arrive at the chosen time and location, take a passenger to the destination, and then become available for the next user—just like an Uber, only without the driver.

“There’s a huge environmental benefit from mobility-on-demand systems,” Rus said, noting a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. “You have a shared transportation system that delivers people and then can be used for other people.” This would require fewer vehicles overall than if everyone owned a car or scooter.

Autonomous scooters would have additional benefits. First, they would free up nurses and other personnel who normally transport people in hospitals, allowing them to devote more time to patient care. Patients would not need to wait for someone to help if an autonomous scooter could arrive on demand and take them where they need to go. “It frees up the time and increases the quality of life of the person who needs the help,” Rus said.

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The autonomous mobility scooter isn’t available commercially yet, but accessibility advocate Darrell Shandrow Hilliker, founder of Blind Access Journal, called the idea “intriguing.” He said the most important aspect of this and other future tools is to make sure that the controls are fully accessible by people no matter what their situation. “Autonomous vehicles aren’t that great if a car won’t take you where you want to go because you’re blind and you can’t use it because the user interface is inaccessible,” he said.

One other possible problem with self-driving scooters: If they are just part of a journey that also involves self-driving cars or buses, some passengers may not be able to transition themselves from the scooter to the second vehicle and back again. “That part would need to be solved,” Rus said.

Ryan Popple, chief executive of electric-bus maker Proterra, said accommodating people with disabilities in an aging society is one of the biggest challenges of putting self-driving buses on the road. “How do you get disabled passengers on board an autonomous bus?” he asked at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, in October, noting that bus drivers spend much of their time assisting such passengers.

Another expert worried about a different potential roadblock for disabled passengers: cost. “Many people with disabilities, due to ongoing stigma and discrimination, are under-employed or unemployed and have very low incomes,” said Susan Parish, director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University. “It is very easy to conceive of this type of technology facilitating employment and thus improving the economic well-being of people with disabilities. However, if the technology is expensive and if it is not funded by public sources such as Medicaid, then many people with disabilities will not benefit at all from this innovation.”