Are there Autonomous Vehicles (AV) for Wheelchairs?

Imagine a car that drives itself, leaving you free to read a book or scroll on your phone. Imagine a world where the ability to drive doesn’t limit access. Imagine a future where wheelchair users have the same access to automotive transportation as any able-bodied individuals. 

That future may not be too far away, and the solution is in self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles. These self-driving vehicles allow a human driver to lessen or completely eliminate their role in driving a vehicle. 

An autonomous vehicle future could be a true game-changer for people who use wheelchairs and their caregivers. Read on to discover more about the possibility of a driverless future and what it could mean for you.

How Do Autonomous Vehicles Work?

As you would expect, self-driving vehicles are incredibly complicated feats of engineering. A driverless vehicle requires both software and hardware input. Cameras, radar, artificial intelligence, remote distance measuring devices, and computer programming all work together to gather the information needed to safely complete driving functions.

The 5 Levels of Autonomous Vehicles:

The level of automation can vary based on the sophistication of the vehicle. There are a total of five levels of autonomous vehicles, with only the highest allowing a completely hands-off experience for the human in the vehicle. The following descriptions give you a better sense of the vehicle’s features based on each level:

Level 0: A “regular” car, where the human driver does the driving.

Level 1: The vehicle’s driving system can support the human driver’s steering OR acceleration and braking. 

Level 2: The vehicle’s driving system can oversee both  steering AND acceleration/braking but only in certain conditions. The human driver must still pay full attention and operate all other driving functions.

Level 3: The vehicle’s driving system can perform all driving functions, but only in certain conditions. The human driver must be attentive and prepared to take back control when alerted by the driving system, even in ideal conditions. If the conditions aren’t right, the human driver handles all driving functions.

Level 4: The driving system is able to perform all driving functions independently in optimal conditions. The human does not have to pay attention as long as conditions remain ideal.

Level 5: No driving or assistance is required from a human for any functions, regardless of conditions. 5G technology facilitates communication between vehicles and communication with traffic lights and signs and the road. 

The Benefits: Why Do We Need Self-Driving Cars?

Aside from giving all drivers the opportunity to kick back and relax or multi-task during trips, self-driving vehicles could be important additions to society for many members of society. 

For example, autonomous cars could mean unprecedented freedom and accessibility for those living with physical disabilities.  

Widespread adoption has the power to eliminate a large number of existing barriers to independent access to family and friends, employment options, and necessities like medical appointments and grocery shopping. Someone for whom driving was not an option would no longer have to choose where they lived based on accessibility of public transit or proximity to someone who could drive them. Accessibility gaps could be narrowed substantially.

In order for this freedom to become a reality, the vehicle needs more than just driverless technology. Entry and exit from the vehicle and access to safety restraints would need to be completely accessible across abilities as well.

What Are Other Benefits of Self-Driving Cars?

Though less profound, a variety of other advantages certainly exist. A long commute would no longer mean wasted time. Work or relaxation could be the focus of the passenger’s ride rather than driving. A commuter could even sleep while in transit. Car accidents could be drastically reduced by omitting human error. In addition, optimal speed settings could increase fuel efficiency and make busier roads and highways far more efficient.

Are Self Driving Cars Safe?

Taking such a huge step from vehicles driven by humans to a completely autonomous vehicle future comes with many arguments, both for and against. These debates typically center around safety and include:

Safe driving: Can artificial intelligence really be taught to safely drive in all possible scenarios?

Overrides: How will manual overrides work, how quickly can they be employed, and will they be accessible for all types of drivers, including those with disabilities?

Technology hacking: The widespread implications of unlawful or malicious access to an entire grid of drivers is concerning.

What Is the Future of Autonomous Vehicles?

While autonomous vehicles are in operation today, they are mostly still operating alongside a human backup driver. A future of Level 5 travel is still a long way away and will require relentless testing and retesting. The artificial intelligence gathered form each and every ride is teaching future AV vehicles how to respond in various situations. The more hours that are logged, the “smarter” the system becomes until eventually, it can operate independently in any conditions. 

The nearest future of completely driverless vehicles will begin with wider use in public or shared transportation scenarios like shuttles or ride-hailing services. The price of an individual autonomous vehicle will likely keep the general population from owning their own driverless car for some time.

As for the future of accessible vehicles, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said, “there are eyes on the importance of beginning the journey with accessibility and inclusion in mind. But involvement and advocacy are crucial to ensuring this focus as technology develops.”

It’s worth noting that BraunAbility, in partnership with Purdue University and others, was the winner of the Inclusive Design Challenge put forth by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As the team with the winning prototype, a $1 million award was given to further research and development on this fully-accessible and autonomous transportation future.

Members of the physical disability community, a group that could likely benefit from the technology most, is cautious but optimistic. The Driving Force, BraunAbility’s online community of individuals with mobility challenges, answered a survey about autonomous travel, and 79% said they’d need to know millions of miles of testing had been completed to demonstrate superior safety over human drivers, even if it meant they couldn’t independently travel. Another 45% would want to review government publications about safety testing before they’d roll into an autonomous vehicle. 

One member of The Driving Force stated, “I’m not sure any information would make me feel more comfortable. People can always find ways around safety measures to hack and misuse technology.”

For driverless cars to become an everyday reality, technology must continue to advance and the freedom it provides must outweigh the risk. When that day comes, AV travel could become a true equalizing force in travel for people with mobility challenges.

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