For all the promise autonomous vehicles hold to improve safety, their potential goes far beyond that. Autonomous vehicles also help to overcome mobility barriers for a key population – people with disabilities who need a step-change improvement in personal mobility.
In 2017, Volkswagen Group of America launched its inclusive mobility initiative, a dedicated program with Volkswagen designers, researchers, engineers, and computer scientists working to bolster mobility for key groups. The challenges are complex – but the team says promises are huge, and so is the potential of future Volkswagen solutions.
“Our mission is to help improve transportation and the quality of life for everyone, especially people with disabilities. We work on specific features of hardware and software design to ensure that Volkswagen’s future vehicles and services can be used by as many people as possible,” said Christian Lorenz, Senior Director Intelligent Cockpit and Body at Volkswagen Group of America.
The inclusive mobility team explores automotive design solutions related to people with mobility, vision, hearing and cognition disabilities. Their overall mission is to make automated vehicle design truly accessible so they can deliver on their promise of bringing mobility to people who don’t currently have it. The work ranges from the complexity of figuring out how to secure a wheelchair in a vehicle without an attendant to ensuring vehicle features and software-based interfaces are within reach and accessible to the widest range of users.
Chandrika Jayant, UX Research and Design Manager at Volkswagen Group of America, who has a background in human computer interaction and inclusive design, said autonomous vehicles and mobility services could increase the quality of life for millions of Americans.
“Technology is evolving rapidly, and there’s an unprecedented opportunity to redesign how we get around,” she said. “In our work, we focus on those groups of people who have been traditionally underserved in mobility spaces.”
The Santa Clara, California, based team is collaborating with global Volkswagen Group’s Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles brand, which partners with Argo AI to develop autonomous vehicles and the technology that will drive them. The team also works closely with Volkswagen Group’s software brand CARIAD, providing resourceful knowledge and feedback for user interfaces and software functions.
Understanding specific needs
Jayant says having empathy for the challenges faced by disabled communities in mobility is only the starting point. “We need to understand the specific needs, we need to be involved in continuous dialogue with the people who are underserved to hear from them their experiences, and not simply imagine what those experiences might be,” she said.
The team’s work starts with collaborating with disability groups to get their insights and feedback in the earliest stages of designing vehicle technologies and mobility services. The team also meets regularly with community stakeholders and various national advocacy groups such as the WeWillRide coalition or the American Association for People with Disabilities, gathering data and insights on the hurdles to vehicle access facing people with motor and physical impairments.
That work has already led to an examination of how future technologies can assist a wider range of operators. The team has begun to tackle how the vehicle could communicate with users who are blind, deaf or visually impaired — including, for example, working on a screen reader accessible software interface. Other projects focus on interior concepts with parallel visual, text and tactile notifications for deaf passengers, and approaches of external vehicle speakers and microphones to support locating and boarding for visually impaired people.
Beyond those software-based functions, for example, the team examines seat concepts in autonomous vehicles. Where some deaf passengers like concepts of seats facing each other for better face-to-face communication, the team also needs to consider motion sickness probability in moving vehicles.
“Ultimately, we are not aiming towards one ultimate product somewhere in the far future,” said Lorenz. “Continuity is key. What we do and what we learn in our continuous work with advocacy groups could also have positive effects for the next Volkswagen vehicle generations soon to come.”
Some challenges require cooperation from several industries
Some challenges will require cooperation from several industries, Jayant added, stretching from design to engineering, to advocacy and regulatory guidance. Today, for example, there are no industry-wide standards for how wheelchairs can be latched into a vehicle. Bringing that process into a highly automated vehicle setting requires inputs from wheelchair makers, insurance companies, users and governments to start.
Both Lorenz and Jayant said the United States has led the conversation around inclusive mobility globally thanks to the strength of its disability advocates, and the progress they have made in working for solutions that are more inclusive across society. By listening and learning from them, the inclusive mobility team believes those lessons can be incorporated into products that provide greater freedom of movement for all users.
“There are real opportunities to make products better for people,” said Lorenz. “We want to be leading this progress.”