Smart Ultralightweight Wheelchair Wins Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Top Prize

The Phoenix i smart ultralightweight wheelchair from Phoenix Instinct has taken the top prize in Toyota’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge.

Side view of Phoenix i ultralight wheelchair

In a global announcement on Dec. 17, the United Kingdom-based manufacturer was awarded $1 million U.S. to continue developing the Phoenix i, a carbon-fiber-framed chair that features front-wheel power assist and a smart system that automatically adjusts the chair’s center of gravity for more efficient and safer self-propulsion. The goal of the Mobility Unlimited Challenge was to create “game-changing technologies to improve the lives of people with lower-limb disability,” according to a news announcement from the Toyota Mobility Foundation.

Till now, Phoenix Instinct — named for the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its predecessor — has been known for designing luggage and daily travel bags for people who use wheelchairs. Now, the manufacturer will also be working on bringing the Phoenix i wheelchair to market.

The Phoenix i was chosen over four other finalists: the Evowalk smart wearable simulator, which uses a smart system to support muscles during walking to prevent falls (Evolution Devices, United States); the Qolo standing mobility device (University of Tsukaba, Japan); the Quix highly mobile walking exoskeleton (IHMC & MYOLYN, United States); and Wheem-i, a wheel-on ride-sharing device for people who use wheelchairs (Italdesign, Italy).

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge began in April 2018, when 10 innovators were named Discovery Award winners and given $50,000 U.S. each. In January 2019, that group of 10 was narrowed to five finalists, each of whom was given an additional $500,000 U.S. to develop a prototype for the final judging.

Phoenix Instinct’s founder and CEO, Andrew Slorance, himself a wheelchair user since sustaining a spinal cord injury at age 14, was emotional as he accepted the award and praised the work of the other finalists.

Slorance recalled getting his first wheelchair — which he remembered as very large and bulky — and vowing to one day design a better one. In a press conference following Phoenix Instinct’s win, Slorance described the Phoenix i as “taking the proven and updating it with smart technology.”

In a news announcement from Toyota, Slorance added, “Winning the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge is incredible for Phoenix Instinct and for wheelchair users. The wheelchair as we know it has been technologically unchanged for decades. The funding we received through the Challenge allowed us to prove smart technology makes for an easier-to-use and safer wheelchair with the potential for a suite of new features. With the prize money we can now advance this work and bring the Phoenix i wheelchair to the consumer.”

Slorance said that in the 37 years following his injury, he’d often thought back on how drastically his life changed the moment he fell from a tree. But with Phoenix i’s win, Slorance said his perspective on that day had changed: “Something good could come from it.”

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh provided technical advice to the Mobility Unlimited Challenge competitors and also hosted the judging panelists, who hailed from Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. Judges included Winfried Beigel, Director of Research and Development, Otto Bock; Mary Ellen Buning, Ph.D., RESNA President-Elect; Eric LeGrand, disability rights advocate, Team LeGrand; and Matthew Reeve, Director of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

Slorance said he expects the Phoenix i wheelchair to be ready for production in 18 to 24 months. One of Phoenix Instinct’s priorities, at least at this early stage of wheelchair smart technology, is to deliver a chair that’s comparable in price to existing ultralightweight wheelchairs.

The Toyota Mobility Foundation was established in 2014 to create a more mobile society. Among the foundation’s activities is “running competitions that generate inclusive solutions to connectivity issues in transportation and promote advances in personal mobility.

Photo courtesy Toyota Mobility Foundation

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.