IBM’s autonomous tech focused on helping those with disabilities

on Aug3

Sachin Lulla: “We wanted to build the world’s most accessible vehicle.” Photo credit: Greg Horvath

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — IBM’s foray into autonomous car design focuses on people with disabilities.

The technology company last year unveiled its Watson-powered self-driving shuttle, called Olli. Sachin Lulla, global vice president for automotive strategy and solutions leader at IBM, said it’s an example of the company’s focus on providing personalized experiences for those who may otherwise struggle to drive.

“This was a big experiment for IBM,” he said Wednesday at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars. “We wanted to build the world’s most accessible vehicle.”

Lulla noted there are roughly a billion people with some form of disability, and that people are generally living longer than in years past. Self-driving car technology has been widely believed to be a way to offer those people the chance to remain mobile after they can no longer drive.

The battery-powered and 3-D-printed Olli shuttle includes features such as ramps for passengers in wheelchairs, text-based question-and-answers for hearing-impaired people; verbal commands and sensors on seats so sight-impaired people can easily find an open seat; and reminders for people who leave items behind because of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disabilities.

Passengers can also ask Olli for recommendations on local destinations such as popular restaurants or points of interest.

“It’s about mass personalization,” Lulla said. “We have to cater to everyone’s personal preferences.”

IBM launched Olli in Washington, D.C., in June 2016 and has expanded it to Miami and Las Vegas. It can seat 12 passengers and does not include a driver. IBM said it’s the first vehicle to use the cloud-based cognitive computing capability of IBM’s Watson Internet of Things.

Lulla said shuttles are 3-D printed in 10 hours, in partnership with Local Motors. By next year, he said the vehicles will take just three hours to print. It can easily be configured for taxi companies, corporate campuses or other uses.

“The advancements we’ve made in material science help us meet the expectations our consumers have,” he said. “They want things now, or at least in a matter of days. It’s no longer about five-year vehicle cycles.”

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