The power of a personalised, on-demand driverless future

Written by Robin Christopherson, MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet

Public transport such as trains, planes, buses and trams are vital for millions of people in the UK to get to work, to school or the shops every day. A good and reliable (cough) public transport system forms one of the essential elements of any vibrant economy.

For people with disabilities, however, public transport is often the only option for getting from A to B. Having accessible buses and trains, then, is absolutely essential. Due to the very nature of ‘public’ transport, in an ideal world you would make every bus or train accessible as, sooner or later, someone with a disability or impairment will undoubtedly step (or roll) on board. We don’t yet live in an ideal world, though, so the next best thing is to at least provide a sufficient number of accessible buses, say, in order that someone in a wheelchair isn’t having to wait an unreasonable amount of time before being able to travel. As buses always come in threes, you may think that at least one in three buses made accessible is enough — and in some parts of the country it seems that the local bus provider agrees.

We all know that inclusive apps and websites are easier to use by everyone — and this definitely holds true for accessible buses and trains. If someone with a wheelchair can roll on board, then it’s also easier for people with a pram, trolley or heavy luggage too.

The government has recently published its Inclusive Transport Strategy which sets out the Government’s goal to create an equal access transport system by 2030. According to the strategy, autonomous vehicles, digital wayfinding systems and other technologies will play a key role in making transport more accessible for people with disabilities,

“Technology has huge potential to make transport much easier for disabled people and bring advantages to some people who will never otherwise get the benefits of the private car,” states the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) in the report. Nowhere could this be more marked than in the provision of driverless vehicles of all shapes and sizes offering choice to all travellers — each with their own particular needs.

A driverless car for you, and you, and you

By 2030 the concept of private car ownership will be as outdated as shoulderpads or feature phones. Every street in both inner cities and sleepy towns will have a number of quietly humming electric cars making their way to some unknown destimation, carrying one passenger or many. Each car will be as different from one another as animals in the zoo or fish in an aquarium — with one common factor being that they will never be still for more than 30 seconds or so as they pick up and drop off their passengers or payload.

The thought of cars just sitting inactive, taking up space and depreciating in value will be as alien to people then as the thought of us being ferried around by a car’s AI alone is to us today.

Even though car ownership will be rare in our transport vision of the future, there will still be a driverless car — perfect for your specific needs, whatever your needs are — mere minutes away. Want to travel alone? No problem. There’ll be the smallest pod possible ready to give you the greenest and most affordable ride arriving in 3 minutes. If you’re happy to share the cost of a ride, then larger vehicles that are going your way will intelligently pick up and drop off fellow travellers on the most efficient and cost-effective route for everyone involved.

  • Need a lift with a serious amount of luggage space to take your large family to the airport? There will be 4 to choose from, each under a mile away, regardless of the time of day.
  • Want one with a bed? No problem — sleeping how many?
  • What about an immersive VR experience on-board so that you can pretend you’re travelling across the streets of Mumbai or the surface of Mars? That might be 20 minutes away but nevertheless an option ready for the booking.

Accessible options for the booking

There will undoubtedly be an enormous choice available as companies compete to make their fleet of vehicles the most comfortable, competitive, feature-packed and versatile for the broadest possible range of customers. Moreover, unlike trains or buses, only one in every few vehicles need be accessible, for example, as the sheer availability and choice will ensure that a suitable car is only a few streets away.

  • Need a ride that accommodates your wheelchair or mobility scooter? No problem — it’ll be here in 6 minutes.
  • Want a car big enough for your service dog? There’ll be dozens to choose from in your neighbourhood at any given time.

Alternatively, if you have allergies and need a vehicle that is a definite pet-free zone — done. The fleets on the streets and the options on your app will easily cover all eventualities.

Driverless cars — making private transport public

Why does such a vision of the future require autonomous vehicles? Why couldn’t it be realised today with actual humans at the wheel? There are many reasons, but the most significant relate to the economics and practicalities of private car ownership. Taxi drivers tend to drive their own vehicles and are reluctant to go long distances — or at least would charge an eye-watering amount to do so.

When car manufacturers are freed from having to satisfy the needs of drivers (to work only when they want to, go only where they wish to and use their car ‘out of hours’ for all the usual things that cars are used for), then they will be able to radically diversify and not be constrained to design them all around today’s standard theme. If it wasn’t for the wheels we may not even recognise many of the autonomous vehicles of the future

So I believe we’re in for quite a ride — and it seems that Government is seeing the bigger picture too. In the report it confirms that Government is “committed to going a great deal further” than just the current measures covered in the strategy, and will be sure to “set a clear direction to the transport technology sector on the importance of inclusive design”; this includes working directly with older people and people with disabilities, and “challenging technology developers and designers on the extent to which they have considered the needs of disabled and older people in the design of a product or service.”

Let’s hope that that clear direction embraces the potential of personalised experiences that truly bridge the gap between public and private transport.

Originally posted here

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Originally published at digileaders.com on November 8, 2018.