Car makers and technology companies are partnering with advocacy groups for people with disabilities amid warnings from a recent report that the elderly and disabled risk being kicked to the curb as autonomous-vehicle technology gets set to revolutionize mobility.
“Automobile manufacturing companies are underestimating the various needs of people in terms of how they actually engage in the reality of mobility,” said Megan Strickfaden, a design anthropologist at the University of Alberta and co-author of the 2018 study with researchers at the University of Cambridge.
“Mobility is not simply about getting into a vehicle and either punching something into your phone or telling the vehicle to go somewhere. It involves many other things for a range of different people.”
Automakers and tech companies want to gain a strong foothold in a market expected to grow globally to US $556.67 billion by 2026 from US$54.23 billion in 2019, according to Portland, Ore.-based Allied Market Research.
DISABLED POPULATION GROWING
A 2018 Conference Board of Canada report says there are 2.9 million people living with a disability that impairs their mobility, vision or hearing, representing 10 per cent of the population. That number will rise by 1.8 per cent a year over the next 13 years, nearly double the pace of the population as a whole. Spending by this group is set to rise to $316 billion in 2030 from $165 billion in 2017, representing 21 per cent of the total consumer market, up from 14.
Proponents have touted AVs as a way to reduce congestion and help people who can’t drive overcome obstacles to either public or private transportation.
Fully autonomous vehicles that require no human interaction — Level 5 — are still years away from being deployed, so, “there is a window of opportunity to develop inclusive interfaces as early as possible to avoid a potential automation divide,” the study said.
“With the goal of developing autonomous vehicles into realizable technologies that can be implemented in the next 10 years, it is necessary to improve design understanding of inclusivity in autonomous vehicles,” the report said.
“The aim of inclusive design is to move people from marginal positions where they are not participating or cannot participate at all to places where they can participate.”
“We need to make sure that accessibility is built in and not just some add-on, after-thefact thing as it is now,” said Terrance Green, who chairs the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ transportation committee.
“It’s always a continuous battle trying to have accessibility built in.”
But some companies are working with advocacy groups to ensure AVs respond to the needs of consumers with disabilities. Waymo, the autonomous-driving subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., has partnered with the U.S.based Foundation for Blind Children and the Foundation for Senior Living, among other organizations, for Waymo’s “Let’s Talk SelfDriving” campaign. According to the campaign’s website, Waymo is designing its mobile app to be used with accessibility services including Android TalkBack, which provides spoken feedback so that consumers can use their device without looking at the screen. “Riders will be able to turn on audio cues that will help keep them informed about their journey.”
In addition, Waymo’s self-driving vehicles use Braille “to allow vision-impaired riders to easily find the buttons to start the ride, pull over the vehicle or call for rider assistance.”
At Volkswagen Group of America, a team of engineers, designers and researchers is working on a project aimed at making autonomous vehicles accessible to wheelchairs.
“It’s definitely going to take collaboration between [automakers], advocacy groups, wheelchair manufacturers and securement providers to make sure that whatever we develop is an effective and safe solution,” said Shani Jayant, principal user-experience designer at Innovation and Engineering Center California.
“We are not just designing and then asking people to validate our ideas,” Jayant said in a statement. “We’re bringing people to the table to share their voice and input from the beginning.”
VW Canada spokesman Thomas Tetzlaff said the automaker does not have “a dollar value assigned to this potential market.”
“I think it’s a pretty noble effort, and sincerely hope our goals are altruistic on this front.”
Strickfaden recommended that automakers steer away from universal design, instead focusing on “specialized vehicle variants”toaccommodatedifferent people and their needs.
For example, a vehicle’s trim could be designed for those who are visually impaired, while another could be designed for those who use vehicles primarily to transport their children to school or elsewhere.
“A person in a wheelchair is very different than a blind person. And not only that, there are 100 different ways that someone could be blind and have different needs.”
Colin Dhillon, chief technical officer at the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said AV technology is still in its infancy.
“But we haven’t started to have those conversations yet to the depth that we should have, about disabilities,” he said. “If you’re a person who’s blind, you’re a passenger and you always have been. But we’re about to embark on a period over the next few decades where we’re all going to be passengers. So why would you limit who can be a passenger and who can’t?”
Strickfaden said designers should ensure interiors have room for wheelchairs and guide dogs and have advanced voice technology and accurate dropoff points and other features.