Autonomous Vehicles: The Answer to Accessibility Needs

Suhasini Gadam Blog

Autonomous self-driving vehicles are just around the corner and millennials are often considered early adopters. However, they might not be the ones that need autonomous vehicles the most. In 2017, there were an estimated 962 million people aged 60 or over in the world, comprising 13% of the global population. This population is growing at a rate of about 3% per year and is projected to be 1.4 billion in 2030. One in five Americans, about 53 million people, have a disability of some kind. About 2.2 million people in the US depend on wheelchairs for mobility, while 6.5 million people use a cane, walker or crutches to assist with moving around. This demographic often has to depend on others to meet their daily transportation needs. Autonomous vehicles come as a boon to enable people with certain disabilities to move with ease and eliminate their dependency on others. How can these special needs of accessibility be met with autonomous vehicles?

Key Advancements in Accessible Automated Technologies

A number of recent advancements in automated accessible technologies show that the world is now getting more serious about the social aspect of technology. The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology developed and deployed a self-driving wheelchair in Singapore’s Changi General Hospital in September 2016. Meanwhile, Panasonic developed autonomous electric wheelchairs and tested them at Japan’s Haneda Airport in 2017. These self-driving wheelchairs are coming to hospitals, airports, universities and other vertical markets to help people with disabilities move around with ease. These autonomous wheelchairs employ autonomous mobility technology where users input their destination via a smartphone app that will enable the wheelchair to identify its current position and the best route to get to the destination.

Automakers are still catching up with accessibility requirements. Toyota unveiled the new Concept-i Ride in 2017 that is designed for in-city transportation and equipped with user-friendly functions intended specifically for wheelchair users. The vehicle uses sliding seats to enable entry into the vehicle and uses a joystick instead of a steering wheel to control the car.  Chariot Mobility Inc. developed a wheelchair-friendly electric car, for the Chinese and US markets, that allows users to drive without leaving their wheelchairs and they are believed to be the first vehicle of its kind. The Kenguru car, developed in the UK, is probably the first electric car to enable wheelchair users to drive the vehicle without leaving their wheelchairs behind.

Ride-hailing companies have also made an effort to make accessible rides available to customers in the last couple of years. After much pressure from different groups, Uber launched their UberWAV ride service that provides wheelchair accessible rides and is available in 26 cities, the vehicles are equipped with accessible ramps and trained drivers to help the riders with disabilities. Lyft allows passengers with accessibility needs to enable Access Mode to request for a vehicle that is specially outfitted to accommodate wheelchairs, but they usually have to order a ride 24-hours in advance. The ride-hailing company partnered with the National Federation of the Blind in 2017 to make its app more accessible to blind customers. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a cooperation program with Didi Chuxing to provide accessible chauffeured car services for people in need including individuals with disabilities in China in May 2017.

Making Autonomous Vehicles More Accessible

Japan has taken the lead in initiating driverless shuttles for the greying rural population, driving at a speed of 6 mph and checking the vehicle’s operational safety in road conditions ranging from puddles to fallen debris. Although the testing of these vehicles has just begun, the features designed especially for the elderly have not been clearly defined yet. Waymo demonstrated an autonomous ride around Austin with Steve Mahan, representing the 1.3 million 2015 legally blind people in the US. GM’s Cruise AV has been designed with accommodations for passengers with visual and hearing impairments and others who cannot open doors. GM’s 2018 Self-Driving Safety Report states that these accommodations will be available in the mobile app and for the in-vehicle experience, including the in-vehicle tablets and communications with remote operators.

To meet all the accessibility needs of different groups of people with autonomous vehicles, a lot more design thinking is required. Voice technology can cater to visually impaired people, UI displays will be effective with hearing impairments, smartphone apps are readily available to cater to these needs as well and accessible ramps will help those with wheelchairs. All of these things are already being used today, but they are being used separately. Can all these technologies be used together in autonomous vehicles? Does it make sense to make all autonomous vehicles accessible? Will there be a need to provide an extra layer of human interaction like remote vehicle controllers to help the passenger feel safe? These are things to think about to embrace the whole society in the autonomous vehicle revolution.

The real challenge for accessibility needs is getting in and out of an autonomous vehicle. How will the vehicle and rider identify each other? Will the seats of the vehicle be able to automatically roll up and make room for a wheelchair? If a transition from a wheelchair to a sliding passenger seat of the vehicle is needed, who is responsible for that transition? In a situation where there are service animals and the law dictates that these animals must be transported with their human companions, will autonomous vehicles make the provisions required to transport them safely? How will the autonomous vehicle know that the passenger is safely out of the vehicle? These questions lead us to think about how we can make autonomous vehicles more accessible and more emotionally compatible with everyone.

Accessibility has always been an important component of technology. Whether it is the government or Google, strict implementation to make provisions for the whole society has always been there. Technology can help make lives better and an autonomous vehicle can mean more than just a vehicle for people challenged to drive today’s cars. To them, it is a symbol of independence and the freedom to move. As Aptiv says, ‘We are born to move’, we are indeed born to move and it is our responsibility to make it real for everyone.

As the auto industry is changed by technological and economic currents, OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers will need to partner with technological specialists to thrive in the era of the software defined car. Movimento’s expertise is rooted in our background as an automotive company. This has allowed us to create the technological platform that underpins the future of the software driven and self-driven car. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can work together.

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