Wisk: The people's autonomous (and accessible!) air taxi
DESCRIPTION“Where is my flying car?” is a longstanding Silicon Valley lament. Almost here, is the answer, and the startup Wisk is one of many startups closing in on that promise with an autonomous (no pilot), electric, 12-prop four-seater that’s more or less like a flying Waymo, only it will initially fly only pre-set routes to destinations like LAX airport from locations around LA. Beat the traffic, right? What’s remarkable about Wisk is how they are building accessibility into the Wisk experience from the start. That narrow staircase for passengers? Guide dogs need something wider. Check.
BRYAN BASHIN: Well, thank you, Alice Turner. And thank you to the entire Sight Tech Global team for inviting me to moderate this panel on autonomous air taxis. If you blinked, you wouldn’t have noticed that there are now 40 companies involved in developing autonomous air taxis, spending approximately $8.5 billion in this investment. The open literature estimates that the market size today is something like $3 billion, but in 10 years, this market is more than $37 billion. 80% of these taxis will be electric, which means that all of them are going to be designed afresh and new. And there’s an opportunity and possibly an area of interest for people with disabilities. So let me introduce Wisk, who is one of the leaders in this field, a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing. And we’ve got two principals from Wisk today. One is Saurabh Nimsakar and Uri Tzarnotzky. Gentlemen, can you introduce yourselves and tell us about your roles in Wisk?
SAURABH NIMSAKAR: Sure. Thanks, Bryan. Thank you for having us. My name is Saurabh Nimsakar. I’m a UI/UX designer with Wisk. I’m responsible for designing physical and digital products and services, with accessibility as a priority. On to you, Uri.
URI TZARNOTZKY: Yeah, thanks for the intro, Bryan. That was awesome. [CHUCKLES] Yeah, Uri Tzarnotzky. I’m the director of Product Design at Wisk. I’m responsible for leading a team of designers, industrial design, user interface design in our studio. We’re responsible for the exterior design, the interior design, the user experience design of all our aircraft and services. I’ve been here for nearly 13 years now.
BRYAN BASHIN: Fantastic. And what an opportunity you have, as evidenced by the set that you’re speaking from. Maybe we should set the scene here by just a short video that you have that explains a bit more about the system and how it’s designed and operates. [MUSIC PLAYING]
URI TZARNOTZKY: The video begins with a shot of the exterior of the generation six aircraft. It’s yellow. It has silver booms with a LiftFan system that is white and mounted on top. We pan across a shot of the cabin, showing four white seats and yellow harnesses. We then see the cabin passenger display instructing passengers to put their bags away. We see a woman putting her purse in the storage bin and lowering the console lid to protect it. Then we see a passenger hit Continue on the display. It tells you to stow your drink. And so we see a passenger putting their travel mug in the cup holder located next to the storage bin. They hit Continue again and see an animation of a mannequin putting their harness on, and then we see the person put the harness in the buckle as well. They hit Continue and are informed of emergency egress procedures. After reading that, the person hits Continue again, and they’re instructed that there’s a Call button on the headliner above their head and that we’re here to help. They hit Continue again. An annunciation showing Takeoff with a countdown timer of 3, 2, 1 showing the aircraft animation lifting off into the sky. The animation then transitions into forward flight, showing the aircraft flying through the city. A yellow ribbon extends out of the nose of the aircraft showing the path that the aircraft will be flying. There is also a Progress bar along the top of the display. A warning pops up saying that we’re landing in three minutes and to put your items away. Passenger hits OK. Then we see a shot of the rest of the cabin with the Wisk logo on the bulkhead. And the video ends with the Wisk logo splashing on a yellow screen.
BRYAN BASHIN: Wow, that was pretty cool. So I mentioned that new tech always raises a bit of concern for people with disabilities. As a blind guy myself, I’ve seen other new emerging technology that hasn’t served customers well. I’ll give you a few examples. Kindle, which introduced the Kindle Reader for schools that didn’t talk, induction ranges consumer electronics that are not accessible, durable medical equipment for blind people that are not usable by blind people, destination elevators that blind people can’t use. And even after 14 years, Uber’s service in most cities has a tiny, tiny number of vehicles that can accommodate people in wheelchairs. So a lot of companies, just people with disabilities, we don’t exist for them. Somehow, Wisk is different. So the question to both of you is, what made you start thinking about people with disabilities from the get-go as you started your design?
SAURABH NIMSAKAR: Yeah, you are actually spot on with that comment. Let’s take an example of e-scooters, for example. And people use e-scooters, and they just put them on the sidewalks, even if they saw problems for a few of them, like last mile and first mile, but they can create more problems for rider audiences, for example. I mean, if e-scooters are on the sidewalk, they are a barrier for wheelchair users. They are a barrier for people using white canes and service and guide dog. So yeah, eVTOL industry, it’s fairly new. It will solve problems for many of the people. It will bring communities together. It will create new routes. But we are proactively looking at the space. We want to design for the future and to note that we are pretty early in this stage. We’re going to launch commercially within this decade, so we have a lot of time to work upon it. And we are in this design phase. We have started researching more about the eVTOL space. We have done ethnographic foundational research. We have interviewed people with disabilities to know their challenges, their rhythms and rituals, and their travel patterns so that we are designing for the future. And our vision at Wisk is delivering safe flight for everyone. And as you said in your comments, it’s not for elites. It’s not for aviation enthusiasts. It’s for everyone, with accessibility at the focus. I’m sure Uri must have some more insights to add on to that point.
URI TZARNOTZKY: Yeah. So fundamentally, this is our sixth generation aircraft that we’re currently developing. And what we’re doing this time is ensuring that from the beginning, before the aircraft configuration or design was frozen, that we’ve taken accessibility into consideration. So in our studio, with mockups, VR, digital and physical interfaces, we bring people in. We’ve brought in the elderly. We’ve brought in children. We’ve brought in people with mobility disabilities with their equipment, people with vision disabilities with their service animals. So we’ve really tried to incorporate as many viewpoints as possible to inform the design of the aircraft before it was locked down.
BRYAN BASHIN: And that is such a huge step ahead of many consumer products that try to Band-Aid something only after it’s released. We can go through a long list of things like that. But I still want to get at this question. You guys are pretty enlightened as tech startups go. Did you know a person with a disability that influenced you to think about this? Are you responding ultimately to some regulatory things? What caused you to do what we wish so many other companies would do in the early design?
SAURABH NIMSAKAR: That’s a really good question. So right from the design phase, we understood that if you want to be successful, we have to design it for everyone. And we follow this universal design principle that if you want to design for people with disability, it will benefit the wider audience, not only for our brand but also for making strategic decisions like community engagement or partnering with multi-modal agencies so that you know that people who reach the vertiport, which is the equivalent of the airport for us, that the initial flight and the concluding– or the initial journey and the concluding part of the journey is all taken care of.
URI TZARNOTZKY: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that I’m responding to any one specific thing, but I don’t think any– anyone that’s traveled in any mode of transportation, especially air travel, I think they recognize the friction in almost every step of the process. I think that’s especially true of multi-modal journeys, where you have to go from one thing to the next. And I think no one is hit harder than the community that may be living with a disability, permanent or temporary. So I think, again, as Saurabh said, making sure that it works for everyone and recognizing that when we make it work for everyone, it makes that experience that much better and kind of elevating the experience for everyone. It goes beyond what regulators ask for. We really view what’s out there as a floor, and it’s really just focusing on accessibility. But what we’ve learned by speaking with people is that that’s a pretty low bar to aim for. What we want to do is aim higher, achieve higher. We want to aim at this pyramid that I think we could talk about, where the peak would be joy and inclusion for everyone involved in the process and, again, minimizing that multimodal friction so that this is a truly viable option for people.
BRYAN BASHIN: I really appreciate your understanding that the laws are a very low bar. The Air Carrier Access Act, been in place for nearly 40 years. It’s responsible for things that are really problems. As a blind traveler myself, all those kiosks in the general world talk now and can be accessible, no airport kiosk is accessible, not required by the Air Carrier Access Act. The people who escort us around, they usually work for baggage. The Air Carrier Access Act never required it, and it took 80 years until finally, United Airlines decided to put something as elementary as Braille numbers on seats so blind passengers could walk their own way to their own seats. So I really appreciate that you guys are anticipating what will be not just a floor, but really, as this becomes a common carrier or a public utility, it has to be a space for all Americans. Again, what is your passion on that? How did you look at consumer product design or transit design so inclusively?
URI TZARNOTZKY: Yeah, I mean, we should really take a step back and talk about what this aircraft and service is and what it’s capable of and its mission. And I think that will inform a little bit about the product design choices. So what we’re talking about is a four-seater. And the cabin that we’re in, it’s arranged like a sedan. So it’s a 2 by 2 seating arrangement. Everyone is facing forward. Everyone has their own door. There’s no aisle. So it really is very car like. And the goal there was to make it as approachable as possible and not threatening and familiar. So that’s the automotive approach behind it. And what someone would use this for would be short hops in dense urban environments. And the example we like to point to is a simple route taking you from LAX, huge busy airport, out to somewhere like Long Beach. So if you google that route right now with rush hour traffic, you’re probably going to come up with a 40-minute number, something like that. And if you were to fly with Wisk, it would be something on the order of eight or nine minutes. So you don’t have to fly far to realize a huge time savings. So these are short hops, 20, 30 minutes. And they’re meant to get people around as if you were taking your car. You can bring yourself aboard, your personal bag, item. There’s room in the nose of the aircraft for a roller bag. So part of the mission is really that last-mile idea, where you go from landing at a commercial airport, taking your bags with you. And this will get you one step closer to your ultimate destination. Sorry, go ahead.
BRYAN BASHIN: I love that you started to talk about your bags and wheel boards. One of the things with people with disabilities, say, people who use power wheelchairs, is being separated from your chair and then finding it in baggage upon your arrival often broken. You have a different idea of how people who use power wheelchairs will use the Wisk system. Can you tell us about it?
SAURABH NIMSAKAR: Yeah, that’s a great challenge. I mean, if you consider current scenario, thousands of wheelchairs are damaged by airlines every month. We had a participant who we invited in the month of February, and his wheelchair was broken. And we reinvited him last month, and, again, his wheelchair was again broken by an airline. So you can see the frequency of damage which is being caused by the airlines. For us, since our configuration is four-seater, we have a provision that we can remove one of the seat from the aircraft and use that space to put a wheelchair, which is foldable wheelchair, inside the cabin. So we have something called platform-based design, so we can remove all the seats. If you want to remove two seats, we can always accommodate a bigger wheelchair. So we have that provision that we can always remove one seat, and people can put their own wheelchair inside the cabin. One of the insight which we got from our research, that people who are using wheelchair, they absolutely love their wheelchair. It’s like another body limb for them. They have emotional attachment to their wheelchair, and they always want their wheelchair in sight. And what is happening currently is that they have to give away their personal belongings, their wheelchair, to some other person who does not handle the wheelchair properly. Our value proposition is that your wheelchair is always by your side in your sight. And if you want to access your wheelchair, you can always do that.
URI TZARNOTZKY: I think a common question we get is being able to sit in your wheelchair for the journey. What we’re striving to do is to keep you in your own wheelchair for as long as possible, right up to the last moment when you are adjacent to the seat in the aircraft, where you can do that lateral transfer, that is– we’re not taking you out of your device, putting you in another, and then making multiple changes. Why we can’t let someone use their wheelchair in-flight is because the seats in our aircraft are actually certified helicopter seats. They have to be able to absorb energy on a hard landing. And so no wheelchair currently would be able to manage those loads. I know that they’re looking into certifying wheelchairs for airline travel. Those only have to survive forward loads. But because we have that other component, that vertical takeoff and landing component, we have to use the certified seats in the aircraft. I am waiting for a future when we have wheelchairs that are certified for this scenario as well, for these type of aircraft, and this form of mobility.
BRYAN BASHIN: OK. For blind people who are travelers, we want to know, what’s going on? How long until we get there? Where are we now, if anything is happening during flight? Could you tell about the in-flight experience and a Wisk craft for blind people, who cannot see that information screen?
URI TZARNOTZKY: Yeah, absolutely. Let me actually take it one step even further, which is, as you mentioned, this is an autonomous aircraft, so everyone is going to have a certain level of apprehension. And one of the things that we’re trying to do with the interface is to ensure that it gives people a sense of situational awareness. And so we’re trying to do that with every sensory input we can tap into to make sure that you’re aware of where you are, what the aircraft is doing, what it’s going to do next, how much time is remaining, and, of course, keeping you in constant contact with our remote hospitality crew. So there’s someone on the ground monitoring the flight, and they’re always available for you to speak to them. So we have a Call button, which initiates a call. We also have text-based messaging, which can actually happen on the passenger’s own personal mobile device. So we are well aware that we can’t compete with Apple or Android and all the accessibility features and software that are built into those phones. So what we want to do is tap into those. So we have in-flight cabin Wi-Fi that basically lets your phone piggyback onto the comms system in the aircraft. So we’re able to utilize your own device, which is something that each person has personalized and is sure works for them. So we have device charging in the aircraft to make sure your device doesn’t quit on you, but then all those other systems that support that situational awareness. By default, the cabin display has a picture-in-picture view for American Sign Language. All the communications have closed captioning. The safety briefing is accompanied by a safety data card, which is all Braille. So we’ve tried to make every step of the way accessible. You want to talk a little bit more about ingress and egress?
SAURABH NIMSAKAR: Yep. So what we learned from our research is that most often, airline, they view a person with disability in isolation. But we realized that the care takers, the care ecology companions, service dog, they’re also equally important. And most often, people don’t think about those care ecologies. So what we are designing is we are not only designing for the people with disabilities, but also for their care ecologies, therefore, their service animal, their service dog. So our cabin, we will have enough space for a service dog to be inside the cabin. We are doing research on how to accommodate service animal. In our research, we have realized that even something like steps are also really important for the service dog. One of the example was that for one participant, the service dog was not able to get onto the aircraft because the step height was too much. So we are designing not only for people with disabilities for the consideration of ingress and egress, but also for the service dog.
BRYAN BASHIN: I really appreciate that. And of course, as an autonomous vehicle, there is no driver to discriminate against service animals, which is a common problem and one that autonomy may help in solving. Well, I am deeply impressed by the commitment that you have in the early design stages of this craft. And I hope that all companies designing million and billion-dollar systems understand that the kind of design thinking here is what we want going forward. I want to thank you on behalf of Sight Tech Global. And look forward to hearing more about the system as it evolves and becomes something we can all be proud of as people with disabilities. Back to you, Alice.