Thoughts on UberAssist

Yesterday I found out that UberAssist was available in San Francisco. Since both my manual wheelchair (a Quickie Ti rigid frame) and my mobility scooter (a TravelScoot Jr.) can fold and fit easily into the trunk of any car, I have used Uber and other taxi-esque programes since they were first available to me. I understand UberAssist as follows:

* Drivers can opt in to take a training class (online) and a test in how to assist disabled and elderly passengers in a polite and helpful way.

* The training was developed by some outside consultant.

* The training is free for drivers.

* UberAssist rides cost the same for passengers as UberX rides, and the drivers get the same payment rate.

While I may use this service, I am dismayed and worried. This is simply the behavior which all Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers should follow: being polite and helpful to their customers, and not discriminating or behaving in a rude or bigoted way.

Are “regular” Uber drivers going to now refuse to pick me and my wheelchair up, and tell me to instead call UberAssist? That seems a likely outcome. When that happens, I will complain to the fullest possible extent not just against the individual driver but against the company, which should, and obviously can, require all its drivers to pass anti-discrimination training.

To top this BS off, Uber is offering the inspiration porn-like option for riders to be charged a higher fee for their ride, out of which a dollar will be donated to the Special Olympics, a button labelled “INSPIRE”. Yes… Inspire. Soooo, which disabled taxi users did they ask what they thought of that name and that option? This is Uber’s response to facing a $7.3 Million fine in California? Or the ADA lawsuits gearing up?

liz with a wheelchair wheel in a taxi

So, meanwhile, I needed to get downtown to the Independent Living Resource Center and I was feeling too exhausted and in pain to take the bus for 40 minutes plus. I tried the UberAssist option. Enough drivers must have taken the training and signed up for the program in San Francisco to give a reasonable density of drivers. Response time to get to my house was 3 minutes for UberX, and 17 minutes for UberAssist. Not great but not unworkable for me. The driver who responded explained to me that I was his 2nd Assist rider, and he signed up for the program because he loves helping people. I told him that I also love helping people. (It did not seem to be part of his thinking that a disabled person might help people.) We conversed pleasantly. I think he was a bit disappointed he did not get to Help me a bit more. He also complimented me on my “positive approach towards life”. Fellow crips will know how “happy” that made me. However, I can fake it to be polite.

On my way back, I had a super helpful and nice driver who said we were her first Assist customers. I appreciated her helping me and my son load my folding scooter into her car trunk. It felt like a normal human interaction. It was not really any different from most other times I have taken cabs. Most drivers get out and offer help. If they don’t, I can usually lift the 30 lb scooter into a trunk on my own. If I can’t do it on my own I most likely have planned to have someone with me….

Also feel I should mention, I don’t always take extra time to get into a cab. Sometimes I’m a bit clumsy or unprepared or I ask for help. It is a matter of an extra minute or maybe two. Not any more than someone with a suitcase would need.

For an example of how some drivers think about disabled and elderly people (bigotedly), have a look at this discussion forum for drivers. It was so horrible that I could not get completely through the multi-page thread. These drivers seem convinced they can and should refuse wheelchair using and elderly passengers, and, that if they don’t, Uber should pay them more for driving them. This is just heinous.

And yet, over the years I have only had one driver behave badly (very badly) to me and one driver cancel after I mentioned my folding wheelchair in a text.

Will I really wait 10 or 15 extra minutes for a cab routinely, for the sake of possibly increasing my chance of being treated with normal consideration?

We’ll see if UberAssist backfires or not. Maybe it will become routine for more drivers to take the training.

And maybe, able bodied and non-elderly people will use it. That might have an interesting effect on the outcome and politics of this social experiment.

If you’re in New York City, here’s a protest happening tomorrow: Krips Occupy Wall Street (OWS Disability Caucus). Do come out and support the protest!

“As you may know, Uber now has 18,000 vehicles in New York City — but not one wheelchair-accessible vehicle. We’re throwing up a protest line — we call it a roll-in — at the Uber offices on 26th Street next week on THURSDAY, JULY 30 at NOON. If you’re around, it’d be great if you could be there. Can you come by? Can you bring anyone? Thanks.”

None of this takes away from the important fact that we should be fighting to make buses better for everyone, and for taxi drivers of all stripes to have better employment rights and protection.

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Off to Kiwicon!

I am preparing to go to Kiwicon 6 in Wellington, New Zealand! I’ll be speaking on hacker communities. I’m super excited to meet people, hear all the talks, blog about everything, scoot around town, and see lots of people I know from geekfeminism.org, linux.conf.au, and DrupalSouth. I’m also speaking at the Geek Girl Dinner along with Laura Bell of in2securITy!

Kiwicon 666

It is the end of days; the sky has torn asunder, for it is Kiwicon six hundred sixty six.

Organised by and for the NZ hacker community, Kiwicon brings together hackers, their whitehat chums, and curious bystanders who are interested in the very very thin veneer of robustness spackled over our technological world.

First priority, fixing my scooter. So I want to talk about that before talking about the con and non-hardware hacking! Zach from the hackability list helped me again, bringing over all his tools. I have a tiny travel multimeter now, but am probably not going to have a tiny soldering iron before the trip. After 3 separate things broke on my scooter on day 1 of my trip to Mexico, I swore never to travel again with a scooter without the stuff to fix it! Though I was very smug that my Spanish was good enough to have a long conversation with an electrician that went far beyond “No sirve” as we opened up my dashboard. Fortunately guessing words like “voltímetro” worked well.

potentiometer and its lever

One problem was that a diode blew. It is in between the two 12-volt sealed lead-acid batteries and once Zach and I had tested everything else we opened up the heat shrink tubing and found this giant useless diode. I think (after discussion with Susan, Zach, and some very nice engineer from the fab lab in China that makes the scooters) it may in theory serve to stop you from draining your batteries by accident. In practice it underpowers the motor so we just snipped it out and didn’t replace it. The hacked smart charger we made for the scooter may have blown it out.

Another problem was that some wires came loose in the dashboard from the cruise control potentiometers despite that I had covered them in tons of hot glue. (The electrician in La Paz and I fixed that bit.) The third thing wrong was that the main throttle potentiometer shaft, which is very long, was out of whack or bent, so the scooter just wouldn’t start, because the motor controller checks to make sure the controls are centered before it will let you start. The driver who loaded my scooter into the back of his van in Los Cabos for the drive to La Paz did not take the seat off the scooter’s frame before bending down the dashboard on its pole. So the acceleration lever (forward and backward) and thus, the throttle pot shaft, was resting directly on the seat and got screwed up. I had a great time in La Paz anyway in a janky rental Everest and Jennings manual chair pushed by Oblomovka and spent the rest of my time in bed (properly as I should, but boringly), on the beach 50 steps from the hotel, or in the tiny front sidewalk table of the hotel cafe writing and sketching.

The Malecón (walkway or boardwalk along the sea) of La Paz was lovely, nicely paved for wheelchairs or scooters, very flat, and very long. It is level in some places with the beach and in others looks out over riprap or extends to piers. At the Science Expo we saw this otherworldly sculpture of a ballena tiburon, or WHALE SHARK. I think of WHALE SHARKS in all caps, always.

on another planet with 2 suns!

Also awesome in La Paz: All of La Paz and the people I met! The lovely, fascinating, kind, people of the Hotel Mediterrane, a small LGBT hotel in La Paz that felt like a bed & breakfast. And the beaches, especially Tecolote and Balandra!

Then Hurricane Sandy happened and I contributed a little bit to this massive group effort to help out and felt a lot of love for the extended “cripfam” of my friends.

We continue our Anarchafeminist Hackerhive meetings at Noisebridge and are looking closely in what’s happening at HackerMoms, LOL, and Sudo Room! Everyone should read Jenny Ryan’s article on co-operation amongst Bay Area hackerspaces:
Hacking the Commons: How to Start a Hackerspace
as it conveys the fabulousness of the Bay Area hackerspaces & the synergy that is building these days.

Oh, and I made up a version of The Internationale to sing at Noisebridge and other hackerspaces, The Hackernationale, for a hackerspace anthem, because the Free Software Song is a bit hard to sing and play. The Hackernationale is especially suitable for singing to sleeping hackers, and I plan on writing many more verses for it!

So, Kiwicon! I will talk about mildy subversive things which hopefully will not sound like “buzzwording buzzword for buzzwordists” since I could not call the talk “How to Conspire to Do Illegal Things”. It will be thought provoking, odd, scary, and wildly entertaining for 9:15 in the morning as I bounce around a stage in the Wellington Opera House ranting and waving my arms wildly like a tiny wheeled Wizard of Frobozz!

Bootstrapping InfoSec for Hacktivists
As hackers and activists, we have a lot of power and many vulnerabilities. And as we act not just as lone hackers but in working groups, our infosec practices can expose not only ourselves but our associates. Acting with power, responsibility, and as much safety as possible means we need good operational security for whole communities, whether they’re publishing citizen journalism and leaked information, challenging censorship and copyright law, or taking direct political action locally or internationally. This talk will walk us through some cultural frameworks and technical tools created by and for emerging hacker communities. Who are we? Who will dislike our actions? What channels might they use? And how can we treat them as bugs, and route around them?

Before giving that talk on Saturday morning I will be at the Arduino thing on Friday, then maybe the Surviving Kiwicon orientation if I’m not falling over from jet lag, then the clambake Geek Girl Dinner, then the speakers’ party. On Saturday I’m especially interested in Alex Kirk’s talk on Master Phishing, Leigh Honeywell’s talk “Firehoses and Asbestos Pants” on the security incident & response life cycle, the web app recon talk and the talk where 3 guys with ponytails talk about security. On Sunday, I really want to go to Open Source Security Response, The tale of a Firefox bug by Thoth and the Wi-fi attack cycle talk which I believe will actually take place with the souped-up motorcycle on stage and which MAY INSPIRE me to stuff more electronics and another large deep-cycle battery into my mobility scooter. Also this seems like the quintessential Kiwicon talk since their Secret Cabal clearly LOVES METAL. This is the best conference talk description ever!!!!!

War driving has been around for a very, very long time, however it has been missing a few key things. Mainly leather, Judas Priest and Motorcycles. ‘Ghost riders in your LAN’ is a talk based around overclocking the wardriving game by introducing gasoline, angle grinders, cheap wifi gear and a build price smaller than your slightly more exorbitant weekend bender. This talk is a collaboration between Security-Assessment.com and Stray Rats Custom Motorcycles. I will be covering the details of how to build a wifi-attack-cycle from ground up – from electronics and cheap-and-cheerful heads up displays to the bike modifications required to mount all the tech and look awesome while terrorizing your local neighborhood TP-LINKs. Ride the metal monster, breathing death and fire. Closing in with vengeance broadcasting high. This is the WifiKiller.

OMG! I want a ride on this beast!!!

Actually, Sunday has more talks than I can possibly sit up for, so if you see me lying down in the back of the theater please don’t be alarmed, I am just resting my back, or have taken too many muscle relaxants. Carry on!

After the con I am going to veg a lot and go to the indoor swimming pool for some physical therapy and hang around Wellington for a few days. Maybe with Joh and sundry, maybe with hyp4t1a if she doesn’t disappear off into some sort of skiing, rock climbing hinterland!

Say hello if you see me, I look like this and am on a little blue scooter or hobbling slowly around on a cane:
new shirt

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Wheelchair and Scooter Hack Day

The Hackability group met up at Noisebridge this weekend to work on modifying, maintaining, and otherwise hacking our scooters and wheelchairs. This first meetup was just 4 of us, Ian, Zach, Susan, and me. Ian and I talked first about projects we would like to do for his powerchair and my scooter. Susan is an engineer, inventor, and hacker who has some great ideas about improving power and making a regenerative braking system for my scooter. Zach came prepared to give us a really great talk which I’ll try to describe from my notes.

Zach made the point right at the outset that we can think of scooter hacking as falling under two categories. The first is for comfort and repair; things that are necessary. The second category is mods and upgrades; in other words, extra fun stuff. About comfort and repair: He talked about how long it took him to really listen to his body and pain levels and know what was irritating about his mobility devices, rather than accepting what he was given as “just how it is”.

For him, stability is an important factor. Parts wiggling on his scooter caused more pain for his back and legs, while rattling was distracting and annoying. He then took the seat off his scooter and I demonstrated my seating as well, to show how you can stabilize the seat housing pole. Mine was vastly improved simply by wrapping in a few layers of duct tape. Now, on the bus, my seat doesn’t wobble back and forth forcing me to use my low back muscles to cope with the sway of the bus plus the erratic seat motion. Many of Zach’s other mods were done with cheap and easy to find, objects like zip ties, heat shrink tubing, and blocks of styrofoam. He is a genius of finding free or cheap things to hack! His repairs look sturdy, neat, and durable. (Unlike my cardboard and duct tape repairs which are such a hot mess.)

Scooter batteries

He had recently put a bigger motor into his scooter frame. The motor heats up and has a fan to the side next to one wheel. Jacket sleeves, backpack straps, and other stuff was getting caught and tangled in it. Zach ended up replacing the fan with a blade from a computer’s cooling fan, and making a curved metal guard for it out of what looked like a thin plate of metal from a hard drive casing.

fan guard for scooter motor

We digressed for a while into talk about batteries, their expense, how many amp-hours our batteries have, ideas about bolting extra batteries onto the side of my scooter and wiring them into the existing removable battery case. The lack of cheap smart chargers means that most people with mobility scooters have ineffective chargers which shorten the batteries’ life and effectiveness. My batteries, new in March, are already dropping in voltage output capacity even when fully charged, so my scooter is laboring going up hills or for any significant distance. Susan has plans to design an affordable smart charger. We’ll see how that goes! For more on batteries and charging, read up on Battery University.

MOving on to our second category of mobility device hacks: The fun extras. Zach showed us some of the cool stuff on his mobility scooter, like how his wire mesh basket is stabilized with a flat metal plate with screw holes and some hot glue. I suggested black latex paint might be a good alternative to hot glue, and may try that for my own basket, which squeaks annoyingly against its brackets. We talked about alternate handles for scooter grips and controls then admired Zach’s fancy lights. On the more simple DIY side of things, he has a small battery operated LED light meant for a bike, velcroed onto the side of his scooter dashboard. Advice: use the real Velcro not the dollar store kind! As a quite complex lighting hack, he has strips of LED lights which are wired into his scooter’s main power supply and through a homemade circuit board which steps down the power.

Another complicated hack we discussed was in building our cruise control switches and stabilizing the forward and reverse levers which make the scooter go. These levers on most mobility scooters use a non-precision potentiometer. The screw on these things goes out of whack, which can be very annoying.

I have to digress for a minute to explain scooters, or at least the scooters I’ve used and seen. They have levers on the handlebars which connect to a trim pot and the main power supply from the battery. The power also obviously goes to the motor. There are no brakes. There is a solenoid of some kind which stops the motor. There is no neutral gear so if the motor stops, the scooter stops. But there is also a printed circuit board in the mix which has “safety features” programmed in. In practical terms this means if there is any interruption or big fluctuation in the power supply, or you hit a huge bump in the sidewalk, or I don’t even know what else, the motor cuts off. When you start your scooter and the centering of the levers controlled by the potentiometer is just a little bit off, the motor won’t start. To adjust and fix the potentiometer’s screw, you have to take the entire plastic housing off of the scooter’s controls.

Anyway, Zach’s approach to this problem, from advice from our friend Jake who is a fabulous hardware/electronics hacker, was to add a 50K trim pot in parallel with the existing one. He placed it so that its screw faced outwards, and drilled a hole in the plastic casing so that he can adjust it with a screwdriver without taking apart the scooter. Brilliant!

His other mods include a USB charging port on the dashboard and a scooter-charging port also on the dashboard rather than low on the scooter frame. We ended up discussing charging a lot more, and what gauge of wire is necessary, but I don’t have good notes on that.

At that point we looked at Ian’s powerchair and discussed some of its features and problems. It is a much more complicated beast than a scooter, and a couple of orders of magnitude more expensive to buy and get repaired. Powerchairs have two motors controlling the wheels so that they can turn in place, while scooters tend to just have one motor, with forward and reverse. Powerchairs seem to have much more powerful batteries and have more complicated control boards hooking up the joystick or other single-hand control with the power supply and motor. Ian’s chair has a fancy color screen hooked up to the joystick control but it seems unhackable. Or at least not without risking ruining the chair’s software. It seems a shame that it is not easier to to software or firmware mods that we could experiment with and roll back the changes if the experiments don’t work out.

The thing we worked on was a power plug in the back of Ian’s chair. It is an Anderson connector and didn’t work, maybe from being shorted out, or maybe because it is wired wrong. We thought about cutting the wire and replacing the plug connector or reversing how it was wired. We took off the back plate of the scooter housing to see if there was anything obvious to do that wouldn’t mean we had to take apart the entire chair. Hooray, there was a fuse between the plug and the battery, and it was blown. Zach found us a new fuse from the many tiny parts bins in the Noisebridge hack shelves. Ian replaced the fuse and put everything back together. It tested out okay with the multimeter this time! But the plug that he wanted to use with it, which is a DC/DC power converter from an electric bike company, wasn’t wired the same way. We concluded it would be best to either buy a new part ($50) or cut apart the bike part to reverse its wiring to the connectors.

Thanks very much to the role playing game group in the other classroom who moved most of the tables out of the room for me before our meetup!

scooter hacks

It was a great meeting with a mix of lecture, discussion, theory, and hands on practical demos and work. If you would like to join our mailing list, here’s the link: Hackability mailing list, for DIY hacking, modifying, and fixing existing wheelchairs, scooters, powerchairs, and other mobility or accessibility devices. If you’d like to come to our meetups in San Francisco, you are very welcome. Please join the list and let us know!

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Cruise control hack on my scooter!

My mobility scooter has a lever which when pressed moves the scooter forward or backward. There aren’t any brakes; I stop by taking my hand off the lever. So in order to keep moving I have to keep pressing this lever. Over time, that hurts my hand and arm. It’s also just tedious! So I wanted to copy what my friend Zach had done and build a switch that would keep the scooter moving. He said it was pretty easy. I took the front casing off my scooter dashboard to see what it looked like in there. Kind of scary, a tangle of wires. If I messed it up, I’d be stuck. I put it back together unwilling to experiment till I talked with someone who knew what they were doing.

scooter wiring

When Zach and I looked at it we took that cover off again and set it aside. The wires were in clusters of three with easily detachable connectors, labelled CN1, CN2, CN3, and so on. CN3’s cluster of wires went to the keyhole, which I could see is very simple. In fact I would bet I could stick an audio jack or some other piece of round metal into the hole and start the scooter. CN2 went to the potentiometer that sits between the levers for forward and back. In other words that lever moves a precision screw that goes into the potentiometer to change the resistance going from the battery to the motor. CN1 went to the forward and reverse lever, and that’s where we wanted to put my switch. We labelled some of the connectors with a Sharpie.

power supply wires

The existing potentiometer was 5k Ohms (it said this on the bottom of the part.) There were three wires going to it; white, yellow, and blue. Yellow went to the forward lever. Blue went to the reverse lever. White was the wire they had in common. Between the white and yellow wire we measured 800 ohms. Between White and blue we measured 4K8 ohms. We would need to duplicate that with the new switch.

IMG_1705

Rummaging around in the hack shelves and bins and tiny drawers in Noisebridge we found two potentiometers with tiny screws that Zach pointed out were very finely adjustable. Precision trimmable potentiometers or trim pots. We ended up using one for the 4K8 and one for the 800 side of our switch.

Here are the tiny drawers and bins we looked through! Imposing, aren’t they?

IMG_1714

And the Pile O’ Junk that overflows from the hack shelves:

IMG_1715

We found several switches, none ideal, and none that looked easily mountable on my scooter’s dashboard. Jake, who is great at electronics stuff and builds robots, immediately found us the right thing, a single throw double pole switch. The switch looks like a little bug with 6 legs — the connectors we soldered wires to — and the flippable part of the switch sticking up from its back. Here it is all wired up, before the hot glue went on.

new switch with potentiometers

We replaced one of the duplicate blue wires with white. (Which I found by rummaging in the hack shelves and bins.)

We realized at some point that the resistance didn’t match up perfectly because we had measured it all while the trimpots and switch was unmounted from the wires but we needed to measure and adjust the trimpot screws while it was connected.

Before we hot glued and mounted everything we put a 2×4 under the center of the scooter to prop it up for testing – so that the wheels could spin without the scooter going anywhere. It worked great when we flipped the switch! Very exciting!

We then dabbed hot glue over the switch and some of the other connections with a glue gun. The glue is kind of rubbery and would peel away easily. It should stop the solder from jolting loose, though.

When we went to mount the switch, we realized it stuck out further back than we had room for in the plastic casing. But it would fit really well in the area for the keyhole mechanism, which was shorter. We ended up drilling a new hole for the key hardware on the lower right of the dashboard, and enlarging the former key area to fit the switch. This took a little bit of adjusting and re-drilling with the dremel while we held the front of the plastic case in place. It was very useful to have four hands. My extremely bright LED flashlight came in handy at this stage.

scooter hacking

Along the way we also replaced and added some washers to hold everything in securely. It was great to have access to all the tiny bits of hardware that Noisebridge has free for the hacking and to all the tools in the shop and electronics lab.

equipment

Thanks so much to Zach for the awesome tutorial on potentiometers and resistance in circuits, and for the hacking help! You can see part of his super slick dashboard here, with cruise control switch, usb port, and other useful charging ports as well as a cute Totoro keychain.

totoro keychain

By installing “cruise control” I basically bypassed a crucial safety mechanism of my scooter. I am trying, each time I flip that switch, to repeat to myself over and over, TO STOP, FLIP THE SWITCH. Three times now in the past few days I have forgotten it is on, pressed the lever automatically with my right hand while cruising; then taken my hand off the forward lever only to be unpleasantly surprised that I don’t stop. (Until I crash into things.) On day 1 I was super careful. On day 2 I was lifting up my backpack while stopped, and the backpack strap caught on the switch. I went barrelling forward to crash into Noisebridge’s media cart and a lot of chairs. Everyone laughed. NOT GOOD. Luckily, only one thumb and my dignity were wounded. Day 3, I had my hand on the forward lever and was stopping on the sidewalk. Except I didn’t stop! I was about to hit both a curb and a knot of pedestrians and all I could do was crash myself into a pole. That worked and I yanked out the key and flipped the switch in a giant panic. So, after that I did a lot more deliberate practice with a “the switch is on” mantra. Any time I am near people, or an intersection, I go back to manual control.

I also plan to build a little shield for the switch from Sugru to prevent accidentally flipping it. It needs labelling as well; when I took my scooter on the airplane yesterday I spent some time explaining DO NOT USE THE SWITCH to the airline cargo laoders at the gate until they were so scared of my “TURBO MODE” that they gave me back the key and carried the scooter onto the plane.

scooter hacking

Next I want to move the keyhole to a spot on top of the dashboard instead of under it, and stick some LEDs and an arduino in there with its usb port sticking out for programming, and some sort of complicated dial so I can make different things happen with blinky lights on the front of the scooter….

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