Developing autonomous tech for wheelchairs 

Imagine a wheelchair-user arriving at an airport in a taxi and being greeted by a waiting autonomous electric mobility vehicle ready to carry them to their gate. Not a vision of the future, in fact this tech is currently being developed by Japanese firm WHILL. The idea is simple: users arriving at large venues - airports, theme parks and hospitals, say - request a WHILL wheelchair using an app, which then automatically returns to its base after helping the user complete their trip. In fact, WHILL’s Autonomous Drive System is already winning awards, being recognised as one of the ‘best innovations in accessibility’ at Las Vegas’ CES 2019, the world’s largest tech trade show.

WHILL, which was founded in Tokyo in 2012, is aiming to revolutionise personal mobility with this new Mobility as a Service (MaaS) system. Commercial venues all over the world face challenges moving people with limited mobility throughout their facilities, but WHILL says its system addresses these problems to help provide them with a safe, efficient and economical solution. It also offers people with mobility impairments greater independence. Each of WHILL’s exceptionally designed vehicles features front- and rear-mounted cameras and sensors to provide superb visibility and obstacle detection, and optimised navigational data is used to create the best route for users.

After WHILL revealed that it was opening an office in Amsterdam, I amsterdam spoke to Shogo Koda, the firm's European President, to find out more about the firm's plans:

When will WHILL open a new office in Amsterdam? what activities will you be focusing on and how many people are you expecting to work here in the next five years or so?

Based in Amsterdam, we will focus on marketing our current flagship product "Model C" in Europe. Since June 2018, we have sold the product in Italy and the UK. We will further broaden our geographic footprint across other European countries through new partnerships. On top of the B2C product sales, we will also focus on introducing our MaaS business in Europe. WHILL is developing self-driving and self-stopping technologies, which provides more independence to individuals with mobility needs. In collaboration with strategic partners, we are looking to further bring device-sharing and last-mile transport solution in Europe. I cannot affirm yet how many people will be working in our Amsterdam office in five years, but I hope to expand our businesses prosperous enough to have more than 50 full-time employees.

Why was Amsterdam chosen specifically as a new office location?

The presence of highly-skilled talent is one of the main reasons why we choose Amsterdam. To expand our business in many European countries, we need diverse talents. Here it is easy to find talents who can speak multiple languages. Also, logistically, Amsterdam is a relatively compact city with close connectivity to other locations around Europe.

 

Can you describe what the market is currently like for WHILL – is it very traditional or very competitive? and what are the key challenges for you in the market?

Generally speaking, the traditional personal mobility industry is very conservative, and the European market is no exception. The industry’s conservative attitude would be the exact reason why the appearance of powered wheelchairs or scooters has not changed much over the past decades. This conservative nature of the industry could be a challenge for a new player like WHILL to smoothly penetrate the market, but we believe it could be a great opportunity for us at the same time. Our cutting-edge design and technologies will be a core differentiation factor.

Can you please explain in your own words how WHILL wants to change the world for better?

Through innovative technology and design, we’re giving people greater independence and opportunities to fully participate in society and the activities they love, and this pushes us to do even more even better.

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