The last thing we want is to relive the rise of ridesharing companies, when people with disabilities were left sitting on the curb while industry-disrupting technology improved lives for everyone but us. This time around, as autonomous vehicles emerge, we’re at the table. We may not be quite ready to welcome our robotic overlords … but we’re getting there.
Interview with Henry Claypool by Josie Byzek
NEW MOBILITY: Historically, disabled people have been left behind in the planning of grand new futures. Will that be the case with the looming transportation revolution fueled by autonomous vehicles — self-driving cars — as well?
Henry Claypool: Here’s what I think will happen: The AV companies will operate manned vehicles for quite a while, and they’ll be able to go pick wheelchair users up in an accessible vehicle so they can comply with the ADA. This really may be more cost effective for customers than purchasing a personal vehicle, and the more people focus on that aspect, the more likely these ridesharing models will integrate more accessible AVs into their fleets.
So even wheelchair users will have access to transportation, and that will happen before AV is fully functional.
The one thing I want to state explicitly is that getting automakers to focus on building an accessible vehicle will reduce the cost because then it won’t need extensive aftermarket modifications whether it’s just a regular old combustible or, hopefully, electric. And then you’ll have accessible cars Uber can use in its fleet. That’s a near-term benefit.
We’ve had meetings with VW, so they’re moving forward. They were definitely leaning in to this conversation. Also the We Will Ride coalition has developed a score card, and we’re working with the automakers so that on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, we can talk more about the future of accessibility and these vehicles.
NM: There is a big push for AV to be used to deliver goods, such as groceries or pizza. I fear that this may lead to a decrease in access as it may require wheelchair users to have to go to their curb and have the ability to physically lift bags or boxes out of a vehicle when right now they can ask the delivery person at their door to put the food in their lap or on their table.
HC: There’s ADA compliance their service has to deal with. They’ll be required to pursue reasonable modifications to their practices and procedures. I’ve talked to lawyers in these companies, and they all agree they have to comply with the ADA.
NM: So despite access hiccups, will AV technologies ultimately benefit our community?
HC: It will be awkward for the next couple of decades. It’s going to be uneven. Some people with disabilities are going to have access while others will just grow more frustrated that they don’t have good options. Hopefully over time that gets better, and that’s why we’re working now to engage these companies to ensure they don’t put it on the back burner so we can have solutions earlier rather than later. NEW MOBILITY readers can get involved and learn more about our coalition at joinwewillride.org.
Interview with Shani Jayant by Seth McBride
NEW MOBILITY: Why did Volkswagen get involved with designing an accessible, autonomous vehicle?
Shani Jayant: With the rise of self-driving cars and electric vehicles, it requires a new platform, a new base for the car itself. We took it as an opportunity to design something from scratch, revisiting what a car looks like. Self-driving cars may not need a steering wheel, so the inside might look different than a normal vehicle looks today. But also, when cars are electric, they need to have large batteries in the floor, which requires a new vehicle platform to be developed to hold them. So we thought, if we’re redesigning everything anyway, this is a really great opportunity to make sure that we’re including lots of people that have been previously excluded from other mobility solutions.
NM: The disability community has a long history of being designed for rather than being included in the design process. How are you making sure that the real needs and concerns of people with disabilities are being addressed in your designs?
SJ: We started by working with a number of disability organizations because we wanted to work very closely with the people whose needs we’re trying to meet. We’ve been having a series of workshops and roundtables and are working with organizations like DREDF, the We Will Ride Coalition, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf. Learning about the history and the advocacy efforts that have happened for so long really gave a much better context for how to approach these conversations we’re having with the community. We’re including people not just in research projects/as research participants, but we’re also working with lots of experienced consultants from these different disability groups — people who are experienced in certain assistive technologies or in policy, strategy and all of that.
NM: What are some of the design challenges you’ve been working on?
SJ: Initially, we’ve been working on making the vehicles wheelchair accessible and the wheelchair securements, because those are things that need to be decided early on. We are looking for an independent solution for wheelchair users to secure themselves. There are universal docking solutions that have been proposed, and we’re working with wheelchair manufacturers and securement providers.
Other than securement, even being able to have a proper ramp into the vehicle is not trivial once you have an electric vehicle, because now you have a battery in the floor and you can’t lower the floor in the traditional way.
We will also be looking at things like controls and reachability inside the vehicle. Those things haven’t been designed yet, but we know there needs to be lots of redundancy for all of these interactions. Whether that means that there’s multiple ways to access them physically or you can access them through whatever assistive devices you’re using — your phone for example or even the controls in your wheelchair — these are all things that we’ll be thinking about.
NM: What are you doing to make sure that an accessible, autonomous vehicle makes it into the real world instead of remaining just a cool prototype?
SJ: The way we work here is that we’re not talking just about prototypes, but rather something that will go into production. All of the conversations we’re having with the executives and engineers in Germany are about requirements for this new type of vehicle that will come out. It’s becoming very well understood in Germany that this is something that has to happen.
NM: Do you see the vehicles you’re working on now for individual ownership or as part of shared fleets?
SJ: The focus is currently on mobility as a service, such as on-demand ride hailing, but that doesn’t preclude having ownership vehicles in the future.
NM: Do you see hope for a world where accessibility is the standard, instead of just an option available to a few?
SJ: Absolutely. I don’t know if I’m just idealistic, but I really have seen a trend. I’ve worked in this domain for over a decade, at least, and I’ve already seen that these issues are much more talked about and much more demanded. Especially by a lot of younger people — they’re coming to expect that accessibility is going to be built into things. I think that’s very promising. It can take a while for industry to catch up, especially when there’s such a long design cycle, like for vehicles. I think it’s really important, on that note, to have people with disabilities applying for jobs, and we’re really trying to increase our inclusive hiring.
NM: So how long might it take before a wheelchair user could hope to ride in an accessible, autonomous vehicle?
SJ: Designing a car from scratch typically takes five to seven years. I have to leave it at that right now.
Interview with Malcom Glenn by Josie Byzek
NEW MOBILITY: Uber has famously been testing self-driving cars. Will we be replacing our vehicles with autonomous vans anytime soon?
Malcom Glenn: The jury is still out on what the future transportation model will look like, but most likely we will access autonomous vehicles through a fleet model. This is because of cost and, psychologically, people are hesitant to get into a car that doesn’t have a steering wheel. If you’re uncertain but interested in AV, you can take one ride or ride a couple of times, and the cost of that ride is lower than buying a car.
NM: As you know, Uber and other ride-share companies disrupted transportation in a way that negatively impacted our community because most of the Uber drivers’ personal vehicles are not accessible. Will the near-future’s AV fleets have enough accessible vehicles to serve everyone?
MG: The majority of the vehicles on our network will still be cars that we don’t own, and the absolute goal is to make them accessible. But we need to make sure we are optimizing for accessibility on our platform today, as we will not have an accessible future if we don’t optimize for an accessible present. We have made real missteps in the process but are more committed to getting it right in our platform than we have ever been, and we are increasing the quality of access to wheelchair accessible vehicles.
We are committed to both building tech that is accessible and leveraging relationships we have with car manufacturers and encouraging them to work with disability organizations to figure out what a fully accessible car that doesn’t require after-market modifications would look like off the manufacturing line.
NM: In addition to AV in ride-sharing fleets, Uber is also creating delivery drones. How are these delivery systems being designed with access in mind?
MG: We’ve been doing some testing in San Diego on drone delivery. Someone will load the drone at the restaurant, and it’ll be dropped at a location where a delivery person, in the traditional Uber Eats way, will take the food in a car the rest of the way to your home — there is still a person handing you your food at the end point.
Interview with Matthew Lipka by Josie Byzek
NEW MOBILITY: You are working on the Nuro, an electric-powered autonomous vehicle designed to deliver goods. Why are you focusing on delivery and when do you think your product will be launched?
Matthew Lipka: Our big idea is that if we focus on goods delivery, we can accelerate the benefits of this technology and make it more available. Most trips are for shopping or other errands as it takes a huge amount of time to drive to and from stores. We can give that time back to people with a vehicle that has the potential to be one of the safest on the road.
We have actually already launched our service. In Houston, Texas, we run a delivery service for two Kroger grocery stores using more than a dozen regular self-driving cars — autonomous Priuses.
NM: Wait … regular self-driving cars?
ML: Maybe that’s a little tongue in cheek. It’s a car we can put a human driver in as a backup. But we also operate vehicles with no drivers.
NM: I’m so happy for those sci-fi books I read.
ML: It all seemed like sci-fi not that long ago.
NM: Going back to the autonomous delivery vehicle your company is developing, can wheelchair users easily access their deliveries?
ML: We use “obstructed high reach” from 308.3.2 of the ADA Guidelines in the design. If you are pulling up from the side, we want to make sure you can reach your goods. Also we’re minimizing lip because we want it to be as easy to pull out your delivery as possible. Another thing that’s important is we have a touchscreen that is used to enter your passcode, and we’re following ADA guidelines for that as well. We’re exploring solutions for people who are blind, have low vision and are deaf/blind so they can access the vehicle without relying on the touchscreen.
NM: It looks like a person has to be able to get to the vehicle to be able to access their goods. Currently if I order a pizza, a delivery person hands it to me and may even place it on my table. It seems like having to go to the curb is a step backwards.
ML: Autonomous delivery is an additional option that some of your readers who are able to pick up at the curb may prefer, because it can help make delivery more affordable and because the delivery experience is exciting and convenient. This technology can also help retailers that don’t yet offer delivery from all their locations expand access.