Disabled people spoke about their benefits and requirements on autonomous cars

By Erzsébet Földesi, Presdient atthe Universal Design Information and Research Center of the Budapest Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities (MBE)

The Universal Design Information and Research Center of the Budapest Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities (MBE) is an ambitious Center in Hungary that — among others — advocates for the method of universal design as a tool to make it real that our world is universally accessible, to the greatest extent possible, for all of its citizens regardless their age, gender, religion, race, ability or disability without adaptation or specialized design.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gives the defintion to universal design. „Universal design” means the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. „Universal design” shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of people with disabilities where this is needed.

Since both the European Union as well as their Member States (except Ireland) are parties to the UN Convention, they are committed to undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, which should require the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of people with disabilities.

The Universal Design Center of MBE is a consortium partner in the Mobility4EU research project funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 Research Programme. This programme is working on delivering a vision for the European transport system in 2030 and an action plan including a roadmap to implement that vision. This work is based on the identification and assessment of societal challenges that will influence future transport demand and supply.

Among the promising and innovative transport solutions being composed by the project is the development of higher automation level of autonomous cars. This represents a new opportunity for people with disability once their needs are included in the planning of the automated technology as well as the bonnet of the cars.

Since transport provides people, including those with disabilities with access to education, work, healthcare, cultural and leisure services, etc. our Universal Design Center held its first focus group meeting on 12 September, 2017. This included the possible benefits of people with disabilities from the development of autonomous cars. People with different types and severity of disability, engineers, representatives of Budapest Technical University, Innovation and Knowledge Center, as well as car-sharing services were invited and took part at the meeting.

After an introduction on the current status of world-wide developments in the technology for automated cars held by representative of the University, a discussion started on the benefits of autonomous cars in the lives of disabled people. The discussion showed that the technology has the potential to improve mobility independence of those who cannot get a driver’s license, including disabled people.

Currently, elderly and disabled people find access to mobility more and more difficult. The ageing population may need to give up driving due to their age, however, public transport is not accessible for them. Physically disabled people, especially those with severe disability, can use currently available cars with expensive adaptations, or are not able to drive at all. In addition, their need to park closer to their destination is more and more difficult due to the increasing number of cars and decreasing number of parking places, especially in the cities.

Blind people, who are not able to use cars by themselves see great opportunities in development of cars capable of navigation without the driver.

Representatives of different types of disabled people’s organisations were talking about their benefits of autonomous cars:

‘I have never thought that I can use a car by myself and it will take me wherever I want. I do not know what feeling it can be but do hope, that I will have the opoortunity to enjoy it. I hope that our needs will not be forgotten by the designers, car developers.’ — a blind person.
‘As my family sits behind me while I am driving we cannot have a conversation; I cannot lipread and background noise supresses the human voice. In the autonomous car I can talk with the others during the journey. I hope car developers won’t forget about induction loop.’ — a person with hearing aid.
‘I have never had a calm drive with my son. As he is always fidgeting while I am driving, i also have to pay attention to him as well as on the road. With an aoutonomous car both of us can enjoy the journey.’ — a mother with an autistic child.

At the same time, participants spoke about their requirements to the car developers to make the usability of autonomous cars a reality for people with disabilities as well.

Blind persons and those with visual disability have identified several key issues that developments need to take into account, e.g. accessible technologies and user interface, need for audible and/or braille information on the location of the car, progress of the ride, notification or alerts on the required maintenance or refuelling of the car. Passengers with visual disability need contrasting colours and appropriate illumaniton inside the car which could help them in identification of the objects and instructions inside the car.

Passengers with physical disability, especially wheelchair users would benefit if the design would include a ramp or lift system integrated into the body, or easily mountable to the body of the car. Wide doors that allow access into the car, appropriate space for maneuvering and fixing systems for the wheelchairs are necessary. A system to navigate the car to an accessible physical environment when disembarking would ensure a smooth continuation of the disabled passenger’s trip.

Deaf and hard of hearing passengers are fully capable to drive but a user interface for driverless cars should consider their needs as well. Therefore the need of hearing impaired passengers for visible or text information equivalent to the audio communication of the vehicle, as well as easy to understand navigation system is required to be met during the design of the system. For communication purposes in the car, a proper illumination for lip reading and induction loop is required.

Passengers with intellectual disabilities and/or with autism are more reliant on support to navigate them from one place to another. With uautonomous cars, once they are helped into a vehicle, the system may help ensure that passengers will be safely navigated to their destination.

Simple and easy to understand communication symbols, as well as a user interface with minimal complexicity which provides information on the progress of the journey is necessary for a persons with intellectual disabilities or with autism to use autonomous cars. Provision of supervision and tracking the journey of passengers with intellectual disability and those with autism through video cameras and GPS would give great help for their family or friends. Elimination of too many disturbing noises and information (especially for people with autism) is essential for a quiet journey.

In order to properly respond to the needs of disabled people in the planning and development phase of autonomous cars, a strong partnership between disabled peoples’ organisations, researchers and manufacturers as well as standard bodies is recommended from the onset of the development. By applying the method of universal design, the final product will be usable to all potential users, including people with disabilities. Designers shall consider that developing cars to comply with the sepcial needs of persons with disabilities will, at the same time, ensure more comfort for non-disabled people and raise the quality of the service.

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