The Latest News from the Innovators at BraunAbility®
Learn About the Latest Advances We're Making in the Mobility Industry
Our role as the industry leader and pioneer means we keep up-to-date on all the latest trends and advances in the mobility transportation industry. Every so often, the experts at BraunAbility will take time to publish their findings, which you can find below. This is all part of BraunAbility's commitment to supporting and acheiving healthy, sustainable communities, as well as our mission of pushing our industry forward.
A Legacy of Innovation
At BraunAbility, we take innovation seriously. We employ more engineers than any other mobility manufacturer, and they continue to revolutionize the mobility industry by always focusing on how we can improve our products, and the lives of our customers. Our engineering teams partner with engineers from top manufacturers like Toyota and FCA to produce truly integrated quality designs right down to components, and our engineering department lets BraunAbility use on-site prototyping labs to create new innovations daily. BraunAbility is also uniquely positioned to draw on the talent at Purdue University, a top-ranked engineering school just down the road from our home in Winamac, Indiana.
Read Our Latest White Paper: Autonomy Meets Lift Design
For an interested observer like me, today’s automotive headlines are just plain fun to follow. Electrification, car sharing, autonomy, fuel economy, air quality, performance … whatever … there seems to be innovative breakthroughs (and cool cars) in every direction. This afternoon I watched a Tesla Model 3 “Dual Motor Performance” beat a BMW M3 by 2 seconds in the quarter mile. Did you know that VW announced plans to reintroduce the microbus in 2021 as an all-electric harbinger of fun in the sun? (That makes me want to stare off wistfully towards a Pacific Ocean sunset in the early evening light.) For performance enthusiasts, Chevy made the Camaro ZL1-1LE so fast around the track that the Corvette design team is now testing a mid-engine prototype around the famous Nürburgring. (Presumably this is so that Corvette can maintain its crown as the undisputed GM performance king – although that’s only my presumption.) Spy photographers are going nuts over that the supercar-looking Corvette.
This is all fun to follow.
But in this blog, I would like to focus on autonomy, and its surprising connection to wheelchair lift design. You’ve probably heard of autonomy: that’s the automotive macrotrend where vehicles can safely drive themselves across town to any address you choose. And, just so you don’t miss the main point, they do so without driver interaction. This idea has been around in some form for many years, starting with the DARPA Grand Challenges in 2004-2005. Early autonomous vehicles in these competitions were comically bad, swerving around harmless desert shadows while crashing through innocent bushes (that were minding their own business, thank you very much, before being rudely mishandled by a confused infant robot car). Today, Waymo self-driving vehicles have logged 8 million miles on public roads and continue to accumulate real-world mileage at a rate of 25,000 miles per day (not to mention the 5 billion miles driven in a simulator, but more on that in a moment).1
How did self-driving cars go from cartoonish toddling to striking competency in less than 15 years? The answer is in part due to significant advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, which themselves have been accelerated over the last decade by competitions like the DARPA Grand Challenge. Purdue University has now discovered a way to use this growing field of artificial intelligence to improve lift design – in a unique and surprising way.
Chih-Wei Li led this research as part of his PhD thesis in Mechanical Engineering. With his advisor, Dr Justin Seipel, Chih-Wei (now Dr Li) reasoned that if you could use artificial intelligence to capably perform typical human tasks – like safely navigating a vehicle across town without bothering bystanding bushes – perhaps you could run that science the other way, and get a computer to operate as a human would, with its inherent limitations and susceptibility to performance degradation under stress. Then you could run simulations, where the very-human robot brain could interact with different lifts to see if one design might be better than the other. Chih-Wei’s PhD thesis goes into an appropriate level of detail about research methodology, which is to say it’s not exactly light reading for the average bear, but the general concept I like most is an analogy to the “sports choke.”
Yes, that sports choke. Think of Greg Norman in the 1996 US Master’s Tournament, who entered the final round with a 6-stroke lead … and lost by 5! (Add it up. That’s an 11-stroke slide over 18 holes.) Or for a more recent example, think of this year’s Oregon Ducks football team, who dominated the Stanford Cardinal at home for 42 minutes and then squandered a 17 point lead in the closing minutes of the game (there were several pertinent miscues in that game that can be mentioned here, but it’s too soon for this Ducks fan to go into detail). So how can a world-class golfer suddenly lose his swing, or an elite offensive lineman suddenly forget how to snap a ball – just when the pressure is on and they most need their skills? And what exactly does this have to do with wheelchair lifts?
Scientific American wrote a good article on the topic of choking that I think answers the first question very well. Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago neuroscientist, found that elite athletes do best when they are relaxed and not over-focusing on the task at hand. Do something correctly ten thousand times, and your muscles will “remember” how to do that something without interference from your brain. Technically speaking, the cerebellum becomes a sort of autopilot for the complex task that has been mastered. However, when outside stresses intrude, the autopilot switches off. “They start thinking too much about aspects of what they’re doing that should just run outside of conscious awareness,” Beilock says, “and it actually disrupts them.” She found that the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher-order complex thought, hijacks the cerebellum. Or, put another way, when our stress levels are low familiar tasks comes free and easy, but as stress levels rise our ability to do that familiar task can actually degrade, which causes more focus on the task at hand, which degrades performance further, and so on in an ever-worsening cycle – until the last hole is played or the last minute ticks off the clock.
Which brings us to the second question. Chih-Wei found that a very similar dynamic exists with the wheelchair user interacting with a wheelchair lift. Put simply, the more confidence a wheelchair user has in the lift, the safer they behave. The more stress they feel, the more they bump into boundaries or high-center on the side rail. Chih-Wei spent a summer traveling the US with two other graduate students to study how wheelchair users and their attendants interact with wheelchair lifts, and to learn what sort of stresses are involved with the human/machine interaction. He focused on a handful of things, including weather conditions, lighting conditions, platform sway under load, platform angle, and platform geometry. Then he went back to the lab to quantify just how good – or how bad – the average person is at maneuvering a wheelchair along an intended route under a variety of conditions. Purdue granted him permission to conduct human-centered experiments, and he dove into the problem.
From this research, Chih-Wei was able to use artificial intelligence – similar to that used for autonomous vehicles – to build a simulated robot brain that not only maneuvers a wheelchair like a human, but also reacts to outside stimuli like a human. This robot can choke under pressure, just like that Ducks center I can’t yet speak of in detail. The results are very interesting and exciting. In the virtual world you see through the eyes of the robot. At night, you see shadows cast from the vertical channel lights just like in the real world. Shadows on your virtual legs look just like shadows on your physical legs in the lab under the same conditions. When the robot is instructed to board a platform, sometimes it bumps into the side rail a few times while getting centered, just like in the field. This robot is convincingly good at being average. And, the robot can interact with machines hundreds of thousands of times to really tease out advantages of one design over another. Where Waymo used simulation to constantly improve their autonomous vehicles, Chih-Wei used simulation to find ways to improve the design of wheelchair lifts. The result? A lot of it is surprisingly intuitive.
The slope of transition angles for boarding and alighting the platform is important, where shallow angles are better. A 6-inch, 4-degree roll stop reduces 95% of boarding errors versus an 8-inch, 6-degree design.Platform angle and stability is important, both in the feeling of rigidity under side-to-side shifting loads and in the amount of sag while boarding or lifting.3 A tilted platform influences positioning error, whether tilted up or down. A 5-degree platform angle may cause 60% more sideplate collisions than a level platform.A clearly lit and well-marked platform helps with boarding. A centerline helps wheelchair users more precisely position themselves on a ramp or lift platform, reducing boundary collisions by up to 90%.Platform width is important, where wider is better.
Much of this insight has already been applied to the premium BraunAbility Q-Series lift for international markets, featuring sideplate lights for clear boundaries + zero shadows, a 300% more rigid platform, and an intuitive hand pendant, all combined with an overall beautiful design aesthetic that is more welcoming to the wheelchair user.4,5 Beyond this first product, the BraunAbility innovation pipeline is also full of new products that have been influenced by Chih-Wei’s research … but I’ll only tease you about those at this point. Stay tuned.
While it is fun to follow current automotive macrotrends from the standpoint of an interested observer, it is downright exhilarating to tap into those same automotive macrotrends in a practical way to improve the lives of wheelchair users and their attendants. Who knew that the science behind a self-driving car would be relevant to wheelchair lifts? How else can we redirect good science from the automotive industry to “make life a moving experience for all,” as the BraunAbility Mission Statement says? Again, stay tuned. The leadership team has recently updated our Vision and Values to specifically include driving product innovation, just like Ralph Braun did so naturally over several decades with his God-given skills. Watch for exciting innovation from BraunAbility in the coming months and years.
Vehicle suspension systems are the biggest contributor to platform sag while lifting, which is why BraunAbility does not endorse installing 1,000-lb rated lifts in the side door of full-size vans. The amount of side suspension compression under a maximum load leads to a platform angle sag that we can’t support. The BraunAbility Q-Series lift design has garnered international acclaim, winning a (current) total of three prestigious awards: A’Design (Gold), Excellence inDesign (Gold), and International Design Awards (Gold). For the curious, you can see evidence of these design insights in the Q-Series videos here. We spent a lot of time designing a machine that users would like to be around. In particular, I like how the engineers (Rob Bettcher and Justin Kline) talk about the importance of feeling safe and secure in the “rigid” portion of the website.