Disabled passengers were promised autonomous vehicles — they’re still waiting

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For years, people with disabilities have been promised that autonomous vehicles are right around the corner. Self-driving cars will open up new possibilities for people with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments. Help was on the way.

But Haben Girma is tired of waiting.

“People with disabilities stand to benefit the most from self-driving cars, but developers are not making accessibility enough of a priority,” said the author and deafblind disability justice lawyer. “Waiting until a product is ‘finished’ to start thinking about accessibility is like completing construction of a skyscraper and then tearing part of it down to install an elevator.”

Over 25 million Americans have disabilities that make traveling outside the home difficult. Historically, car companies have provided little relief, producing vehicles that are either inaccessible or cost thousands of dollars to retrofit for a driver with disabilities. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) present a tantalizing solution to millions of frustrated people. But the industry’s well-publicized struggles, as well as the broken promises of tech companies in the past, are forcing many in the disabled community to wonder whether AVs are the salvation they’ve been waiting for.

The skepticism among the disabled toward tech companies is warranted. Uber and Lyft initially claimed that their ride-hail fleets would be a boon for disabled customers, but wheelchair-accessible vehicles are largely absent from both companies’ platforms. And over the past decade, the ride-hailing industry has routinely resisted efforts by regulators to force them to deploy more accessible vehicles.

Whether it is a broken foot, an unforeseen traumatic event, or just getting old — we are all likely to have a disability at some point. Currently, a disabled individual might not have the means to modify a vehicle, they may not be able to drive, or it may be too difficult to navigate public buses and trains. The more accessible AVs are from the beginning, the more everyone will benefit.

One of the biggest automakers in the world, Volkswagen, is already taking steps to ensure its AVs are designed to serve a broad range of people. By talking to groups like the American Association of People with Disabilities, Volkswagen said it is well aware of the engineering challenges they face.

The automaker’s Inclusive Mobility team, based in Santa Clara, California, is working on how an autonomous vehicle could communicate on multiple levels with users who are d/Deaf or have low vision. The team is working on a software interface with an accessible screen reader and on interior concepts with visual, text, and tactile notifications for d/Deaf passengers, as well as external vehicle speakers and microphones, to support locating and boarding for those with low vision.

VW isn’t alone in thinking about how its AVs should be designed to serve the disabled community. Toyota, Cruise, and Waymo are also working on solutions for how to transport riders with different bodies and accessibility needs. And they find themselves encountering the same design hurdles as the VW team.

From background left, Judy Arvidson and Steve Mahan of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center check out the two-seater prototype of Google’s self-driving car at Google in Mountain View, Calif., on Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Judy Arvidson and Steve Mahan of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center check out the two-seater prototype of Google’s self-driving car at Google in Mountain View, Calif., on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.
Photo by MediaNews Group / Bay Area News via Getty Images

Besides making its AV software accessible, VW is also examining seating concepts like seats facing each other for better face-to-face communication among d/Deaf passengers. This would also help passengers read the lips of someone with a speech impairment that might be difficult to understand. But it’s also a seating arrangement that may cause motion sickness.

“Having empathy for the challenges faced by disabled communities in mobility is only the starting point,” said Chandrika Jayant, UX researcher and design manager at Volkswagen Group of America. “We need to understand the specific needs. We need to be involved in continuous dialogue with the people who are underserved to hear from them their experiences and not simply imagine what those experiences might be. It’s a complex process that demands that we have a deep understanding… and that our ideas are future-proofed to some degree.”

One of the most complex challenges Jayant faces is the lack of industry-wide standards for how wheelchairs can be secured in a vehicle. Jayant says that this issue requires collaboration between wheelchair makers, insurance companies, users, and governments. Even with the design obstacles, Jayant remains enthusiastic: “[Inclusive design] is very exciting to work on,” she said. “This is really groundbreaking design research.”

Christian Lopez, senior director of intelligent cockpit and body at VW, points out a fact so obvious that it’s easy to forget: “It is important to consider that many policies drafted to assist disabled Americans were written long before anyone seriously dreamed that self-driving mobility could happen — and, quite often, even before computers were part of our everyday lives.”

Many of those policies came from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law 31 years ago. Lopez notes that insurers define wheelchair coverage as a necessity in the home, but the role of wheelchairs in AVs has never been on the radar. Precautions like crash safety and self-securement often get treated like beyond-the-scope upgrades.

Volkswagen isn’t the only automaker with a team working on AV accessibility. We Will Ride, a coalition of advocates dedicated to ensuring a future with accessible AVs, released its annual scorecard in July on the companies doing the best job of making their AVs disability-friendly.

Toyota, long a leader among automakers in robotics and technology, got high marks from the group. This includes the creation of a fifth R&D department solely for AV accessibility, a $1 million contract from the US Department of Transporation to help study the impact of AVs on people with disabilities, and a slew of disability-focused programs.

Jade Hill, Toyota’s program manager of crash avoidance and advanced technologies, is an important voice in Toyota’s inclusivity push. The company has partnered with May Mobility out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to launch an accessible AV shuttle in Indianapolis. May Mobility also has accessible shuttle services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Arlington, Texas, and Hiroshima, Japan.

But Toyota still has work to do to ensure its AVs are safe for riders as well as pedestrians. The company recently pulled its e-Palette AVs from the Tokyo Paralympics after hitting a visually impaired athlete. A day later, it reinstated the vehicles, saying that the accident occurred due to human error.

Cruise, which is a majority-owned subsidiary of General Motors, highlighted accessibility in its most recent investor call and offered renderings as proof. Cruise has also hired a full-time accessibility program manager who can boast that part of their fleet offers driverless rides to disabled individuals around San Francisco. Cruise built its AV, the Origin, with modularity in mind. From the low floor and high roof to the double-wide doors and removable seats, Cruise views the Origin as a blank canvas that it can modify with customer feedback. The Origin is scheduled for release in 2023 alongside an accessible variant.

But the Origin is still years away from service, and Cruise is facing challenges around its lack of accessibility right now. The company was recently accused by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and several other government agencies of failing to offer service in low-income and minority areas or accommodate people using wheelchairs. The company defended itself by arguing that it was following the law.

GM’s Cruise Reveals First Vehicle Made To Run Without Driver

The Cruise Origin is the company’s next-generation autonomous shuttle.

Zoox, a California-based company recently acquired by Amazon, has engaged with major disability advocacy groups. Zoox has Braille on its vehicles’ internal emergency button, innovative uses of light and sound to communicate with riders and road users, and large visual displays inside the vehicle.

AV operators aren’t only thinking about the people who use their vehicles. A major concern among disabled people is getting hit by a car, and people like Anne Marie Lewis, AV safety regulatory lead at Argo, are making sure those accidents never happen. Argo, which is backed by Ford and VW, believes that geographical diversity will prepare its technology for complex scenarios. The company’s 3D maps are so detailed that Argo not only knows the locations of avenues but also where crosswalks are, abandoned signs, and even local regulations and the differences in pedestrian behavior depending on the city. And the maps will continue to stay current and detailed the more its software is used.

One of the problems faced by disabled people is an AI that identifies different body types and shapes. Argo has answers for that, too: “This [diverse] learning includes training our perception system with a wide array of people and their movement, including those using wheelchairs, so that we’re able to identify, classify, track and predict their behavior,” a spokesperson told The Verge. “If the self-driving system observes a three-headed monster (on Halloween, for example), it may not know what it is, but the perception system can still report that it sees an unknown object at a particular position and moving at a particular speed in a particular direction.”

Waymo released a video nearly a decade ago of one of its cars ferrying a man that lost 95 percent of his sight. The company followed that up with a 2015 video of the same man by himself in a Waymo AV — before many inclusive teams even started. The company’s ride-hailing service has conducted driverless rides since October 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona, including those with different accessibility needs. However, the company does not keep track of how many disabled riders it has served.

With all that feedback, as well as help from Google’s accessibility team, Waymo has created an app that follows WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), supporting screen readers and high contrast modes. The app can minimize your walking time to your ride, remotely honk the vehicle’s horn for low vision riders, and there is an option to choose what side of the street you get picked up on for those with mobility issues. While in the car, low vision riders can listen to detailed audio of key events on their trip. And through the DOT’s Inclusive Design Challenge, Waymo plans to integrate more inclusive features to its app, like haptic cues to navigate to your ride, headlight flashes to locate a vehicle, and more.

In late August, Waymo opened its ride-sharing service to “Trusted Testers” in San Francisco. Compared to the flat, open, and dry terrain of Arizona, the rides through the hilly, foggy, claustrophobic streets of San Francisco are sure to test the limits of Waymo’s technology. Waymo specifically stated that the Trusted Tester program is a “research-focused” effort with an aim to gather information related to accessibility. Those observations have caveats, though, because Waymo’s fleet consists of Jaguar I-Paces, which are not wheelchair-accessible. A spokesman says the company is working with a partner to provide WAVs to the Trusted Testers and plan to expand as they add riders.

A 2017 report from the Rudderman Family Foundation, an institution focusing on disability issues, concluded that autonomous cars could open up job opportunities for 2 million disabled people. The report also insisted that $19 billion would be saved on health care costs because disabled people would have dependable access to medical care.

Rory Cooper, a Paralympian in 1988 who has written three books and has 25 patents to his name, is the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering and Research Lab and is renowned in the disability community. Right now, he is an advisor for autonomous vehicle company Merlin Mobility and is also leading a study by the University Transportation Center to advise and learn from various AV companies.

For those reasons, Cooper doesn’t share the impatience expressed by disability rights lawyer Haben Girma and others in the disabled community. He thinks the future for disabled people looks brighter with more autonomous technology on the horizon.

“There is still much to be learned and to be done,” he said, “but at least the process seems to have started to move in an inclusive and accessible direction, which is extremely important as transportation is both life-sustaining and enabling for people with disabilities.”

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