Satoshi Sugie first became interested in mobility vehicles after meeting a frustrated wheelchair user in Japan in 2010.
"He said he gave up going even two blocks away," Sugie says. "One reason was he didn't want to be seen. There is a negative stigma attached to the wheelchair. The second one is the functional limitation. If there is a bump, he has to avoid it. He was really scared to go outside."
Sugie was working for Nissan at the time, designing futuristic models for motor shows, when he decided to try his hand at futuristic wheelchair design, too. His first prototype, released in 2011, was a sort of turbo-charger for an existing wheelchair--they looked like enormous "headphones," as some people called them. The latest version, which goes on sale next February, is a standalone chair aimed not just at wheelchair users, but power chair and mobility scooters riders as well.
Sugie says the Whill Type-A is different from normal wheelchairs in several ways. One, people can naturally lean forward, as they might riding a bike. There's no slouching back, as you would, say, watching TV. That makes it more comfortable to use. Two, the front wheel is composed of 24 separate tires, giving the vehicle very tight turning ability. And three, it looks "modern and sleek," like something you would expect from a Japanese car designer.
Riders control the Whill with a right-hand joystick; the left-hand has a simple fast- and slow-mode switch. It will go easily over obstacles up to three inches high. And, the seat will roll forwards and backwards, making getting in and out a cinch.
Sugie, who recently relocated to Menlo Park, California, is still working out pricing, but he hopes it won't be too expensive. "It will be a little bit premium price, but not so much different, I don't think," he says.