Automated vehicles: the opportunity to create an inclusive mobility system

Automated vehicles must be designed to suit the requirements of those who need them most. By Azra Habibovic, Jonas Andersson and Cristofer Englund from RISE Research Institutes of Sweden

Automated vehicles are expected to improve mobility and thereby address one of the major barriers to equality and inclusion in society. However, if the development continues to overlook needs of the marginalised population and those who have limited mobility today, existing mobility issues may be amplified.

To ensure that automated vehicles and corresponding mobility services serve all people, stakeholders need to truly embrace a ‘whole journey’ mindset using the universal design from early development phases.

Mobility is a fundamental human right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 underlines that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. Today, however, mobility of many people in our society including children, the elderly and those with disabilities, is often limited. This may make them feel dependent on others and socially excluded.

For instance, street design and traffic complexity commonly limit children’s independent mobility up to a rather high age. Elderly people may need to give up driving due to their age, but public transport is not easily accessible—even in countries like Sweden with highly-developed public transportation. In the vehicle, elderly people face difficulties using advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) due to complex interfaces. On top of that, the need to park closer to their destination is increasingly difficult due to the growing number of vehicles and decreasing number of parking spaces in cities.

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Physically disabled people, especially those with severe disabilities, can drive currently available vehicles with expensive adaptations, or are unable to drive at all. The situation is similar for people with cognitive disabilities. Based on a series of workshops with visually impaired people, a recent Swedish study entitled Automation for increased accessibility? financed by Drive Sweden, identified a range of challenges that they face daily, including the difficulty to plan ahead while using mobility services or when transferring from one mode of transportation to another, lack of announcements at stops, lack of information on baggage allowance, and difficulty countering abrupt movements in a bus or tram (Figure 1).

It is also evident that access to mobility differs depending on factors such as city design, culture, income, degree of new infrastructure and regional economic status. From this, it follows that mobility needs to be improved from several aspects, and across the entire trip.

High expectations are placed on automated vehicles

Automated vehicles, and the mobility services based on them, are expected to address many of these transportation issues for those with limited mobility. In this context, the World Economic Forum states: “The elderly, children and people with disabilities can make use of new end-to-end mobility options”.

Similarly, the Coalition for Future Mobility, a 37-strong group advocating for safety and independence through autonomous vehicles, suggests that full automation offers more personal freedom: “People with disabilities, like the blind, are capable of self-sufficiency, and highly automated vehicles can help them live the life they want.” It is also emphasised that automated vehicles can enhance independence for seniors and improve comfort. According to Bosch’s recent survey Shifting Into Gear: New Car Buyers’ Preferences and Expectations with Automated Vehicle, nearly 50% of 1,000 respondents believed automated vehicles will offer the best in passenger comfort.

This is largely in line with the expectations of visually impaired people highlighted in the Swedish study Automation for increased accessibility?, where it became evident that mobility services based on automation are expected to increase predictability, accessibility, independence, flexibility, social acceptance, and perceived safety in traffic.

Do automated vehicles live up to these expectations?

The current development of automated vehicles and new mobility services based on them makes several of these expectations questionable. Prototype autonomous driving systems are frequently installed in existing vehicle models that are typically not designed with elderly and disabled people in mind. While fully automated shared shuttles could meet some of their needs, the problem of entering such vehicles without support from the human driver is still unsolved.

Due to road design and lack of parking spaces along streets, current on-demand services typically stop on the street for customer drop off and pick up, and it is not unlikely that the corresponding automated services will adopt a similar behavior. While this may be convenient for many people, it would be highly unsuitable for children, the elderly and disabled people.

Navya Autonom Shuttle
Efforts are being made to address the issues of marginalised groups in society

Furthermore, several stakeholders have demonstrated ‘first and last mile’ services running along predefined routes. For many people this would not be an option as it still requires walking and navigating in traffic. Related to this, a topic that is still under debate is the interaction with automated vehicles and the feeling of safety when encountering them.

It is also alarming that automated vehicles and corresponding mobility services are today mainly piloted in wealthier areas with relatively good infrastructure and access to public transportation. This may impact how much of the population they will actually serve, and whether they will reduce exclusion and inequality.

However, there are efforts being made to address issues of marginalised groups in society. Some manufacturers are well aware of the above challenges and design solutions are under way. There are also research projects that address these issues. Still, the main focus is commonly on the vehicle rather than the whole journey.

The way toward a more inclusive mobility system

Automated vehicles have a unique opportunity to provide independence, freedom and improved quality of life for those who have limited access to our present transportation system. However, if the development continues along the current path, putting technology and certain segments of society in focus, only some of these opportunities are likely to come true.

To ensure that automated vehicles contribute to a more inclusive mobility system, the RISE Research Institutes of Sweden argues that designers, manufacturers and procurers need to adopt a ‘whole-journey’ mindset. Why is that? Based on our experience of working with blind, deaf, and deaf-blind people, their support needs are as follows:

Before the journey: Planning; reduced waiting times; improved accuracy; guiding to the vehicle and its entrance; support when entering the vehicle and information about the presence and seating of other passengers in the vehicle.

During the journey: Information about the plan and progress of the journey; the route; possible detours and unexpected events; notification on the required maintenance or refuelling of the vehicle; proper illumination for gaze or lip reading; information about transferring to other modalities and guidance.

After the journey: Information on the destination that has been reached; how to safely navigate the surrounding environment, and guidance to the final destination having exited the vehicle.

From this it follows that a multi-modal mobility approach that takes into account the entire journey—before, during, and after traveling in a vehicle—is necessary. Only when the service of a whole journey, from start to end, has been established will the individual and societal benefit of independence and freedom be fulfilled. This will require a tight and transparent collaboration between private and public stakeholders; otherwise it may be difficult to create a mutual understanding and identify beneficial opportunities.

These design challenges can be met by using the universal design principle. This means that solutions need to be usable by as many people as possible without the need for adaptation. Adopting the universal design principle is also crucial to ensure that existing inequality and exclusion is not amplified. Ideally, this would already be done from the early development phases of automated vehicles and new mobility services. To this end, potential users, including those that are commonly marginalised, should be involved in research and development projects to a much greater extent than today.

By working side-by-side with a mixture of users, we are likely to discover new horizons and reach out to a wider population. A more thoughtful selection of areas for piloting and deploying automated vehicles is also encouraged to ensure that these vehicles will be used by those who need them most.

This article appeared in the Q2 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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