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Disability talks: Accessibility for autonomous vehicles

Private Life and Mobility

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



In this article, we discuss how autonomous vehicles will impact inclusion, and ask:

  • How does driverless tech open up new opportunities for disabled travellers?
  • Are car manufacturers prioritising inclusion?
  • What are the best driverless models out there for people with limited mobility?



“Autonomous vehicles hold incredible promise for people with disabilities to enjoy the enormous freedom that most adults have to live spontaneously and to be independent travellers,” explains Sheryl Gross-Glaser, director of the non-profit Community Transportation Association of America.

It’s something we’ve discussed with experts before, and it’s a conversation which just keeps growing. For those with limited mobility, wherever they are in the world, AVs show huge potential for not just making daily life more convenient but for changing ways of life too.



An inclusive approach to transport


New approaches to accessible travel can already be seen in the more general automotive landscape. Ford, for example, use an ‘aging suit’ to test how people with different levels of mobility might use their vehicles. The Toyota Concept-i Ride shows us a future where wheelchair users can independently navigate busy urban areas in a specifically designed vehicle.


The Kenguru car offers much the same vision. An electric vehicle which wheelchair users can enter and drive without leaving their chairs, this might be one of the most exciting models out there right now. It even overcomes the ‘human function problem’ whereby assistance is needed for disabled people to enter, exit and operate vehicles.


Even more promising is the fact that driverless tech is already being applied to accessibility issues across the globe. In Japan, for example, Panasonic have developed an autonomous electric wheelchair for use in Haneda Airport. Once users enter a destination via smartphone app, the chair plots and follows a course itself. This is an exciting development as it strongly suggests manufacturers already realise, and are working to fulfil, the potential for disabled communities.



How do AVs address mobility concerns?


Though it’s easy to see the potential for AVs and the disabled community, potential alone will not make a difference to people’s lives. Investment in the area, however, will. Increasingly, we are seeing this happen, and a new study has recently launched in Pittsburgh with the sole intention of developing a working set of requirements for AVs to properly serve disabled people.


Combined with the now regular partnerships forming between major manufacturers and disability associations and authorities, understanding of disability and its crossover with AV design is growing rapidly. As Dr Brad Dicianno, a lead on the study, says, “Accessible autonomous transportation could facilitate opportunities for people with disabilities to find or maintain employment, obtain better access to healthcare, and integrate more fully into the community.” In short, this work could be life changing.

(Photo: shutterstock.com / Rock and Wasp)

Which AVs serve disabled passengers best? 


We can see the most potential for lifechanging experiences in the much-discussed models which address inclusion as a primary concern. The Renault EZ-GO, for example, is a concept which launched back in 2018. As the name suggests, it was designed to democratise travel, making driverless accessible for all. It did that through the inclusion of a clever front hatch which allows passengers to comfortably walk on board. The VW Sedric does something similar with tall roofs and doors designed to accommodate wheelchairs. 


The Cruise Origin, of course, cannot be left off this list. By developing a full-height vehicle with sliding doors, a spacious interior and voice functions, Cruise combat a wide selection of ‘on-street’ and navigation issues. 


A key thread here is the fact that all these accessible AVs are convenient for everyone. They’re not just for wheelchair users, like the Kenguru, but operate on the basis of shared, inclusive travel. That now needs to stretch beyond just physical design. 



Considering the whole experience 


However, being able to access a driverless vehicle is only half the solution for disabled passengers. Communicating with the AV, and its communication with disabled passengers, must also be adapted for everyone to ride with ease. Blind or hearing-impaired passengers, for example, rely on different cues. Plus, to safely instruct a passenger to ‘exit on the left’ or similar, the system must be hyper-aware of what is happening within the vehicle, as well as in its surroundings.


To tackle some of these problems, a team at The VEMI lab have created AVA, the Autonomous Vehicle Assistant. A smartphone app designed to give disabled passengers the same access to autonomous ride-sharing experiences, AVA ensures users’ needs can be met in whichever vehicle they choose. It’s solutions like this which perhaps go furthest towards levelling the AV experience. 

(Photo: shutterstock.com / bbernard)

What’s next? 


The original USP of automated vehicles – in short, that they do the driving for passengers – makes them more inclusive than vehicles which require human driving. Done well, this gives them the potential to make social participation, on a level previously unseen, possible for every member of our communities. 


However, to create vehicles which work equally well for every user, we still need to see significant development in the sector and perhaps standardisation of features which guarantees people of all abilities can use all available vehicles. Plus, it’s worth noting that while AV solutions open up new possibilities with regards to mobility, they do lack that element of human interaction from receiving a helping hand. 

It’s because of this that some think manufacturers aren’t going far enough, but it’s clear that accessibility is on their minds, even if it’s not being executed perfectly just yet.   




What do you think? Will driverless tech make travel more accessible for all? Do you think mobility concerns will be made a priority in the years to come, or left behind once again? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 


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