Self-driving cars for people with disabilities

Scientists from Pittsburgh took up researchdedicated to the study of the benefits of self-driving cars for people with disabilities. I will go straight to the results: the effect of this interaction will be extremely positive.

When I was part of the Google car team (now called Waymo), I insisted that we start with a service for people with disabilities. We never built the service, although the first large public demonstration of a prototype from Google allowed the local blind rights advocate to carry out a number of their daily tasks. Steve Mahan, who acted as the passenger, said that being able to get out into the world by car for the first time since his loss of sight, gave him a sense of freedom.

Later, Mahan took part in the project again and made the trip all alone in a 3rd generation Google car. Sergey Brin, who was in charge of the project at the time, was very interested in demonstrating these possibilities.

It’s not just about vision problems – mobility is needed by very different people with disabilities, including, of course, those who cannot walk. Today, transportation in a wheelchair is a rather difficult task for many. The market is very small, and specialized cars and vans can be very expensive (especially for people with below average incomes). Many are forced to use public transport, which has many of its own problems.

In the United States, the ADA (Disability Rights Act) requires that any city with public transportation has a “paratransit,” a public transportation system that serves those who cannot use or reach the existing transit system. This requirement did not bring great results. The average cost of a paratransit trip in the United States is about $ 30, although carriers are not allowed to increase the fare more than double the standard. In some cities, the cost of paratransit can be as high as $ 60. That being said, the transportation services themselves can be terrible. Due to the desire of the authorities to reduce the price (!), You need to book a trip for the day, while keeping within the time period when boarding will take place. Some cities take into account the high cost of using special vans to transport wheelchairs. In such cities, people with disabilities can use Uber and Lyft services at a reduced price (we are talking about passengers who can ride their cars). This approach saves money and improves service quality. However, the authorities have to impose restrictions, because the Uber ride for $ 4 is too great, and if there are no restrictions, the load will be too great.

One of the solutions could be the creation of a fleet of robotic taxis, in which various specialized vehicles will be presented. There is even sense in creating a fleet of vehicles with different sizes of cars, so that they fit a larger number of passengers. If the order came from a lone passenger, then he can be sent a small single car. If you need to organize the transportation of 6 passengers, you can send them a large van. It makes no sense to roll empty chairs and excess metal. This vehicle fleet (probably, there should be a law regulating this moment) should include vehicles with increased availability.


A Kenguru vehicle designed for wheelchair users. Its interior is empty, you just need to roll into it.

My favorite project of a vehicle with accessibility is a Hungarian development called Kenguru. The Kenguru is a small one-person city car with an empty interior. Wheelchair users (including the woman who bought the company) can simply drive into Kenguru in a chair with greater ease than boarding people with the ability to walk in a regular car. You just need to fix the chair, fasten the belt and you can hit the road. This design is much more convenient than vans with lifts or cars with conventional seats and manual controls. Based on the reviews, wheelchair users like this car. The problem is that the market for wheelchair-specific vehicles is too small in today’s world. In the future, there will be no problem with the small size of the market, since such cars in taxi fleets will be available to everyone in need.

With self-driving technology and electric drive technology, it is very easy to design a flat-bottomed vehicle with an empty interior. As well as making space for wheelchairs in vans and public transport easy.

Another part of the problem with accessibility is related to the cost of services and the population’s income. Today it costs about $ 7,500 a year to own a car, and taxi / Uber / Lyft services cost $ 2 per mile or more. The people working on the robotaxi park hope that these numbers can be reduced. Today, the total cost of one mile in a private car is roughly 40-60 cents. This includes fuel, but does not include parking.Either way, cheap city cars for carrying single passengers can bring the cost of a mile down to 15 cents. One can make plausible predictions that trips (when the market grows) could sell for 30 cents a mile. Although this price does not include any benefits, discounts or subsidies, it is still below the cost of most city bus travel. Travel in cars shared between passengers will be even cheaper. If the city government introduces benefits for the needy, we can get really low prices (today, most public transit lines in the United States collect only 35% of their operating costs with fares, and general expenses are not included in these costs). No one will suffer from mobility problems due to low income levels.

There are also more serious illnesses such as severe dementia. Such passengers will still need a companion. However, most people with disabilities should be given more mobility at a much better cost.

The coming world of low-cost on-demand delivery will also be a gift for people unable to leave their homes to shop. There will be many solutions (the author has invested in the development of delivery systems with devices moving along the sidewalk) that will provide faster and cheaper home delivery.

The technologies described in the text will be of great benefit in the future. While we missed the different journeys, traveling exclusively with Zoom, people with difficulty getting around saw a world in which everyone in meetings and gatherings was on an equal footing. There will of course be fewer virtual gatherings when the pandemic ends, although this technology is not going away – it also solves accessibility issues. While all of these technologies have flaws in other areas of life, they look great in terms of accessibility.

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