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Car Tech

This self-driving shuttle puts accessibility first

Accessible Olli was designed from the ground up to help people with disabilities get where they need to go.

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Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers, center, shows off the Accessible Olli's giant outside display.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Jay Rogers stood a few feet from his company's futuristic-looking shuttle bus, called the Accessible Olli. 

The all-electric, partially 3D-printed, autonomous vehicle, sitting in the middle of the bustling Las Vegas Convention Center during the CES tech show, packs features to help people with disabilities and the elderly get around.

There's a retractable wheelchair ramp, software that can process sign language, and displays inside offering simplified information and reminders for people with cognitive disabilities like memory loss.

"We did this with a lens of of accessibility to show that what people would've called niche can lead," Rogers, the radio-announcer-voiced CEO and co-founder of Local Motors, said earlier this month while wearing a bow tie and a zip-up Local Motors jacket.

The bus, which Rogers said will be on the road in a few months in places including Copenhagen and Buffalo, New York, offers a new approach to mass transit, in which a driverless shuttle could someday pick you up at any hour of the day and you wouldn't need to own a car. It's part of a broader trend of companies dabbling in self-driving vehicles as a new form of transportation. At CES, Toyota unveiled its e-Palette autonomous shuttle, while the French company Navya is manufacturing the Arma shuttle, too.

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The difference with the Accessible Olli is that it can provide many more capabilities to help people with disabilities get to work, attend school or do errands. And it may be able to do all that much faster than a typical bus system or paratransit service. It may also address transportation needs that have been overlooked, since the shuttle was developed with the input of people with disabilities.

The nonprofit National Organization on Disability, which has been tracking the gaps between people with and without disabilities since the 1980s, said it's found that transportation options are often lacking for people with disabilities, which results in severely limited job opportunities for them.

"We are eager to learn more about the Accessible Olli because it seems to have the potential to close that pervasive gap," NOD President Carol Glazer said in a statement. "We particularly like that the shuttle was designed by people with disabilities, for people with disabilities."

Hannah Rankin, director of growth at Incight, which help people with disabilities with their education and employment, said many public bus and light rail systems offer wheelchair ramps and scheduled routes, which can be useful. But people can't expect every bus driver to know sign language. That's where the Olli may be able to provide more uniformity to help people communicate, Rankin said.


Bringing Watson to your morning commute

On the CES show floor, Rogers walked me through the compact Accessible Olli. Inside, digital displays fill nearly every inch of window, showing map directions and messages to prospective passengers, like "Katherine, this is your stop." There's cushy seating all around that fits up to 10 people. But most noticeably, the interior looks something like a tiny room, not a vehicle, since there's no steering wheel or space for a driver.

The first iteration of the Olli shuttle, which doesn't have accessibility features, debuted in June 2016. Local Motors, which was founded in 2007 and recently moved its headquarters from the Phoenix area to San Francisco, used crowdsourcing to work with more than 200,000 volunteer designers, engineers and customers to create the Accessible Olli. The startup also partnered with IBM and the charitable arm of the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, on the project.

IBM built its Watson artificial intelligence software into Olli to communicate with passengers and hopes to use Olli as a way to bring its AI into more people's lives and show the software's benefits.

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"When you get in a car that doesn't have a driver, you have to establish trust, so you need to know that Olli understands what you want and it gives you feedback along the way," Bret Greenstein, IBM's vice president of the Watson Internet of Things business, told me earlier by the Olli. "We have to make Olli, or any other self-driving car, feel like a trusted driver."

Ideally, the things IBM and Local Motors learn from helping people with disabilities will benefit anyone using an Olli.

"My hope, as we continue to learn about all the accessibility use cases, is we're learning all the other ways we can better understand people and support them," Greenstein said. "People shouldn't have to learn how to talk to machines."

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