Next-generation wheelchair

Satoshi Sugie's design philosophy is simple. It could even be the corporate mantra of our age -- it's just not what you expect to hear from a wheelchair maker.

"We don't make anything unless it's cool," he told me before jetting off to a tech fair in Las Vegas.

Touch screen displays, sports car upholstery, flashy wheel rims -- his vehicles really are cool. And that's not just my opinion. People testing out his latest creation at the Consumer Electronics Show sounded like they were at an e-sports event.

Like Uber for the sidewalk

The cause of all the oohing and aahing was the Whill Autonomous Drive, vying to be the world's first self-driving wheelchair. Summoned by smartphone, it navigates obstacles with no intervention from the user. The technology promises to give users more mobility and independence, and not just to people with disabilities.

Satoshi Sugie, CEO, Whill

Sugie says the autonomous function means able-bodied people will find it useful for short distances when trains, buses or taxis are not available. He says we'll eventually be able to hail them like an Uber car.

Better mobility for all

"Our company vision is to deliver fun and innovation to pedestrian travel for all, regardless of age, condition or country," he says.

It's an inclusive, globe-spanning vision, and a snug fit with Sugie's life so far. He started out working for Nissan Motor as a product designer. He walked away from job security in his mid-20s, driven by a yearning to see the world. His first stop was China.

"I wanted to speak Chinese because Chinese are everywhere, and the market there is getting bigger and bigger," he says.

Teaching Japanese language to pay his way, he hopped around the globe, spending time in Laos, Papua New Guinea, Uzbekistan and Bolivia.

In 2010, he returned to Japan and resumed tinkering, looking for ways to lift his ideas for personal transport off the drawing board and on to the road, or footpath.
Two years later, a conversation with a wheelchair user put Sugie's life as an entrepreneur in motion.

It all started as a weekend project by Sugie and his friends.

Looking cool in a wheelchair

The man with the disability told Sugie the world was too bumpy for wheelchair users. Even a small bump on the road made it hard to reach his destination. He said he had given up going to the grocery store just two blocks away.

But what really caught Sugie's attention was another comment -- he said he didn't want to be seen in a wheelchair.

Sugie started designing a mobility device that would make the user feel active, a machine that anyone would want to ride. To get people to use it, it had to look cool.

His Whill Model C came out in 2017. The product has changed lives -- something I learned when I met 14-year-old Takehiro Miura. It's not just what he says about his beloved transporter. It's the expression on his face when he's on the move.

Takehiro Miura and his mother take a walk in their neighborhood

Takehiro was born with a severe heart problem. It leaves him low on energy -- and he depends on a wheelchair to get around outside the house. The last time he felt the wind on face was when he was 6 or 7 -- the time he gave up riding a bicycle.

"At that time, kids in my neighborhood were racing around on their bicycles everyday till dusk. I tried to keep up with them, but I couldn't"

Then he stopped going to school.

Takehiro used to use a conventional folding wheelchair. When he left the house, someone, often his mother, pushed his chair.

"It's tough when it was raining," he says. "The person pushing my chair also had to hold an umbrella, and the umbrella always covered only me, leaving them to get wet."

Takehiro desperately wanted to go out by himself.

The wheelchair of his dreams

Little wonder, then, he describes Whill as the wheelchair of his dreams. It's high performance, easy to use and, just as important, stylish.

"Its design is so cool. I like telling people, 'This is my wheelchair!' No, it's not a wheelchair... more like a car, isn't it!"

And like a car, it can handle uneven surfaces, scooting over bumps five centimeters high. That's twice the clearance of a conventional chair.

In some ways it is better than a car: the wheels slide sideways, allowing the rider to pivot in a small space, such as inside an elevator.

Takehiro doesn't even have to ask someone to bring the chair. He can steer it with his smartphone. His family says he smiles a lot more these days. Recently, he joined his friends for a day out at a theme park -- with no-one pushing his chair.

Sugie's invention has given Takehiro a new lease on life, offering mobility, independence and confidence. If his plans for a self-driving version pan out, the Whill could soon be transforming many more lives.

"A tool to add something to everybody's lives"

"For example, imagine a smart city. There, Whill will be able to be integrated as part of infrastructure from the beginning," said Sugie.

A lot of people are selling visions of smart cities these days. What stands out about Sugie seems to be his ability to see things from a different perspective. This came home to me when I spoke to Kanae Kido, one of Sugie's employees. She has muscular dystrophy and also rides a Whill.

Kanae Kido works for the marketing team of Whill

"What I like about Whill is that it's not a gadget to fill the gap for people with disabilities, but a tool to add something to everybody's lives."

I couldn't agree more. I rode a Whill and now I want one, too. Why? It's just cool.