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Autonomous vehicles should open up mobility options for people with disabilities and ageing populations. Automakers, transportation and advocacy groups are researching accessibility issues that need to be addressed to bring the best autonomous technology on the road for all. Auto Futures talked with the leading researchers in the field.

“We’ve come a long way since the American with Disabilities Act,” says Steven Bayless, vice president, Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs, Intelligent Transportation Society (ITS) of America, who wrote the white paper, ‘Driverless Cars and Accessibility, Designing the Future of Transportation for People with Disabilities’, to provide a comprehensive synthesis for society members.

The report notes that almost a fifth of the population has mobility, sensory, cognitive or other impairment. However, part of the problem is the failure of people to imagine themselves needing accessible options in the future.

“As automakers move from marketing vehicles to a defined customer in mind to mobility companies they have to address accessibility. If you don’t address accessibility early in the design you will come up with a less than optimal result,” says Bayless. The key to helping lower the cost of accessibility is to design with it in mind from the beginning. Accessibility also requires universal design for streets, curbs and infrastructure.

Unfortunately even with academic resources there is not enough data. Therefore talking and listening to members of accessibility communities will help the design process, says Bayless.

Mobility For All

Volkswagen is the first automaker to start a major initiative for input from accessibility groups in the design of autonomous vehicles through its Inclusive Mobility initiative, working with groups including the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) the National Federation of the Blind, the National Association of the Deaf and the We Will Ride Coalition.

“Volkswagen plans to listen to everyone from the beginning. We will design the physical, the HMI and the interior to include input from people with disabilities for such as things as height, width and door size,” says Shani Jayant, principal UX designer, Inclusive Mobility, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

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“We are in the early design stages. The first thing that we noticed is the need for standardisation of wheelchair securement in autonomous vehicles,” says Jayant, “So far, the groups are excited about the opportunity it presents.”

“It’s not just for people using wheelchairs. It is also for those who  have partial mobility or who need other forms of assistance,” says Jayant who notes that the HMI (Human Machine Interface) will have multiple means of input voice and others so people will not be excluded

The AARP Autonomous Vehicle (AV) workgroup researches issues associated with its members aged 50-plus and autonomous vehicle technology.

“Our main concerns are AV safety, accessibility, equity, costs and data security,” says David Azvedo, project manager California State Office of AARP.

It’s not just about the safety of riders, AARP policies recommend that the autonomous vehicles should be safe for everyone including the people who interact with them. The group advocates that the design of the whole AV experience must not only be accessible to people with disabilities or mobility limitations but should benefit all people regardless of race, age, ethnicity, income, location, ability level, and other factors.

AARP also believes that consumers should have total ownership over their data, as well as full rights to privacy and cybersecurity in autonomous vehicles.

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British mobility company Aurrigo is providing driverless pods for a number of accessibility projects including one for blind military veterans in the UK. 

Chief Executive of Blind Veterans UK, Major General (Rtd) Nick Caplin CB says: “Blind Veterans say that not being able to drive is one of the most significant things that hit you when you lose your sight. This new technology will hopefully benefit the lives of our veterans and the wider community in the years to come.”

Future designs will incorporate many practical enhancements resulting from the hands-on
experience of veterans.

In Australia Aurrigo showcasing how autonomous technology can deliver improved mobility for the elderly residents living in a retirement village. The battery powered pod, named Elliot, operates autonomously through multiple sensor technologies with speeds up to 10 kmph. Elliot has capacity for four passengers.

The project is a collaboration with the Global Centre for Modern Ageing (GCMA). 

Throughout the trial, the GCMA team will independently collect resident mobility behaviour information and user feedback which will contribute to Aurrigo’s future developments.

Health Applications for AVs

Fully autonomous vehicles may be a long way off in the future. In the meantime, sensors and cameras could be used for healthcare says, Zahra Bahrani Fard, transportation systems analyst, Center for Automotive Research (CAR) that is studying the potential applications of AVs in the healthcare industry.

There are many possibilities such as using automotive technology for lip reading, checking skin colour and breathing  says Bahrani Fard. Data from a sensor in a seat or seat belt could be used to know when to send a warning to a patient to go to the hospital. Rider monitoring is important especially if there is a medical emergency with a person in an autonomous vehicle. For example, an autonomous car could stop the car in when a rider has a heart attack.

Data from cameras, biosensors and GPS could be sent to notify the emergency responders with information about injured riders or drivers.

Research from the medical community could be used in autonomous cars in the future, notes Bahrani Fard. Research at The University of Michigan on bipolar disorder is learning how to recognise when there’s going to be a mood change and know when there is a suicide voice by the vocabulary and the tone. The data could prevent major collisions.

However, there many privacy and security issues with the amount of data that will need to be worked out, adds Bahrani Fard.

She says she’s hopeful that autonomous vehicles will react better than human drivers in highly dangerous situations and drive safer.

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