General Motors' Cruise unveils wheelchair-accessible robotaxi

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - General Motors' robotaxi unit Cruise on Thursday unveiled a self-driving vehicle that is accessible to people with disabilities even as it waits for a key regulatory approval to build and deploy vehicles without human controls.

The wheelchair-accessible vehicle called Cruise WAV is based on its Origin driverless vehicle that operates without a steering wheel and pedals with room for passengers to sit facing each other.

Cruise, which currently runs a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt vehicles fitted with its autonomous technology, had filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) early last year to deploy up to 2,500 Origins annually. NHTSA is expected to issue its decision soon.

On Thursday, Cruise said it expects to launch the WAV with a pilot for a small group of users next year, subject to regulatory approvals, adding that closed-course testing of the vehicle will start next month.

Raid-hailing firms, including robotaxi operators, have faced criticism for not having enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles available for disabled people, who often face shortages and significant wait times.

The unveiling of Cruise WAV also comes at a critical juncture as Cruise and rival Alphabet's Waymo received approval to run their robotaxis day and night in San Francisco and charge passengers for it despite strong opposition from residents and city agencies over safety concerns and disruption of life-saving operations of first responders.

(Reporting by Abhirup Roy in San Francisco)