MIT Develops Self-Driving Mobility Scooter, Just Like in 'Wall-E'


Pixar’s whimsical robot love story, Wall-E, paints an incredibly dark portrait of humanity’s obese polluting future. So, bear with us when we say that MIT’s new self-driving mobility scooters are actually a good thing, and not a portent of slothful destruction to come.

The autonomous scooters, which were designed by researchers with the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory alongside the National University of Singapore, use the same sensor configuration and software that has guided self-driving golf carts and cars in past projects. This, though, is the first time teams at MIT have tested the software indoors, and it appears to be working.

“We were testing them in tighter spaces,” Scott Pendleton, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore, said in a release. Pendleton said they tested the scooter in MIT’s “Infinite Corridor,” but despite the lack of distinctive features in the long hallway, the guiding algorithm worked “very well.”

In the release, MIT imagined a world where a mobility-impaired user could ride a scooter around their building, transfer to a golf cart for shorter ventures outside, and eventually ride in an autonomous car for longer trips. Using the same software for all three vehicles has many advantages, according to researchers. The three options can fill in for one another in a pinch, share information, and use the same learned routes.

“Once you have a better driver, you can easily transplant that to another vehicle,” said Marcelo Ang, one of the project leaders and a professor at NUS. “That’s the same across different platforms.”

Apparently, the self-driving software works pretty well. Researchers also asked people who test rode the scooter to gauge how safe they thought autonomous vehicles were on a scale of one to five. The average score jumped up by more than a point (from 3.5 to 4.6) after users actually tried the scooter out.

The technology MIT is developing could revolutionize life for people with mobility impairments. Let’s just hope that Buy n Large doesn’t get involved and take things too far.