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Cruise unveils wheelchair-accessible robotaxi, plans to launch in 2024

Cruise unveils wheelchair-accessible robotaxi, plans to launch in 2024

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company backed by General Motors, has unveiled a wheelchair-accessible robotaxi that it says could start picking up disabled passengers as soon as next year.

The unveiling of the new accessible robotaxi is a major step toward fulfilling the dream of people with vision, hearing and mobility disabilities, who have long hoped that autonomous vehicles represent a new way to travel.

The vehicle is a version of Cruise's fully driverless, shuttle-sized Origin vehicles, lacking traditional controls such as a steering wheel and paddles. It has been modified to include a retractable ramp, as well as space inside for wheelchair users and floor clamps. The vehicle is the product of three years of development and testing between Cruise, GM and its partners in accessible vehicle design at BraunAbility and Q'Strant. The company also consulted its advisory council on accessibility, which includes dozens of lawyers.

More than 25 million Americans have a disability that makes traveling outside the home difficult. Historically, car companies have provided little relief, producing vehicles that are either inaccessible or cost thousands of dollars to retrofit for a disabled driver. Traditional transportation services are extremely inaccessible and often refuse service to people with disabilities. AVs, and particularly robotaxis, offer an attractive solution.

Indeed, advocates for the disability community have expressed their support for AV development at several key moments, most recently testifying in favor of Cruise and Waymo's application to the state of California for expanded robotaxi service.

But there have also been frustrating delays, as companies have prioritized non-wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) in their various trials and deployments across the country. Several companies, including Volkswagen, Waymo and others, are working on new designs they say are intended to benefit passengers with disabilities — but so far few have shown actual products.

Cruise says it has taken the issue of accessibility seriously from day one and hired a full-time accessibility program manager for its fleet of driverless cars in San Francisco. Cruz says he built Origin, his first purpose-built AV, with modularity in mind. From the low floor and high ceiling to the double-wide doors and removable seats, Cruise sees the Origin as a blank canvas that he can modify with customer feedback.

The company said the vehicle is designed to enable wheelchair users to be loaded and unloaded by a four-inch curb. As of now, it can only accommodate people who use specific brands of wheelchairs, including the Permobil M-Series, Quantum Q6 Edge, and SM Quickie Q500/700M/Q7 chairs. Cruz says people who use manual wheelchairs may need a companion to help secure the straps.

Specifically, Cruz is calling his approach "multi-generational," meaning he wants to update the design based on users' feedback. "Designing a self-driving vehicle that can accommodate as many wheelchair users as possible is a unique technical challenge that has never been attempted before," the company said.

Closed-course testing of the new accessible version will begin next month. Pending regulatory approval, as well as user feedback, Sulabh Origin could hit the streets for pilot testing by 2024. Origin needs a waiver from safety rules from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration so the company can produce more of them. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt recently said the federal government expected to make a decision on Origin very soon.

Until recently, Cruz has faced criticism for his lack of outreach. The company was accused by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and several other government agencies of failing to provide service to low-income and minority areas or accommodate people who use wheelchairs. The company has also been criticized for stopping emergency vehicles.

Last month, one of its driverless Chevy Bolt vehicles collided with a firetruck in the city, injuring a passenger. Cruise agreed to reduce its fleet by half while the incident was investigated.

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