Toyota Mobility Contest Will Give $1M Prize to Top Innovations for Disabled People

The Toyota Mobility Fund aims to accelerate tech that will improve the lives of people with lower-limb paralysis.

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The word "mobility" has become shorthand for ride-hailing, bike-sharing, and other alternatives to car ownership coming out of Silicon Valley; however, Toyota has a more expansive view of the concept. In 2017, the automaker's eponymous Toyota Mobility Foundation launched a contest aimed at getting people with lower-limb paralysis moving with fewer challenges.

Five finalists in Toyota's Mobility Unlimited Challenge were announced at CES 2019. They developed concepts ranging from exoskeletons to a wheelchair-sharing service. Each team will receive a grant of $500,000 to continue their work. A winner, to be picked from the five finalists in Tokyo next year, will receive $1 million for their efforts.

Wheelchairs and similar devices aren't exactly the most appealing area of engineering, which means they and their users likely don't get the attention they deserve. But the Toyota challenge finalists applied the kind of novel thinking normally reserved for the latest app or Tesla-fighting luxury car.

Phoenix Instinct, a team from the United Kingdom, developed a carbon fiber manual wheelchair that uses sensors to constantly adjust itself in response to the user's movements. Evowalk, from United States-based Evolution Devices, is a sleeve worn on a person's leg that stimulates muscles to improve mobility.

Two teams developed exoskeletons. The Quix, from the U.S.-based Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) relies on a series of motors and actuators, as well as algorithms used to balance humanoid robots and sensor tech from self-driving cars, to help a person walk. A team from Japan's University of Tsukuba developed a wheeled exoskeleton called QOLO (Quality of Life with Locomotion) that can also transition from a standing to sitting position.

Italdesign (which does more than create jaw-dropping cars) went beyond the hardware to create a sharing service for wheelchairs called Moby. Using an app, people with manual wheelchairs can reserve power units that attach to the wheels, giving them the benefit of a powered chair when needed.

It's becoming more common for automakers to invest in startups, but Toyota's interest in the disabled runs deeper than that. 

In response to an aging population in its home country, Toyota has experimented with various devices to help people with limited mobility. It previously placed a prototype robot in the home of a paralyzed U.S. Army veteran to help with everyday tasks, and is developing a leg brace designed to help paralyzed people walk. Helping both the elderly and the disabled live more independently is also a stated goal of Toyota's self-driving car program.