How Will Self-Driving Cars Enable Access for Disabled Individuals?

AI technology in the automotive industry could be put to use enabling those with physical disabilities.

Self-driving cars certainly boast a cool factor, but for some, this type of technology means they could potentially lose the privilege and just plain old fun of driving. Yet while these autonomous technologies are expected to advance the automotive, shipping and logistics industries, self-driving car tech could seriously revolutionize the entire world for disabled individuals.

People with disabilities are restricted in terms of mobility and that means ultimately their freedom is limited. But if they could access self-driving vehicles built to accommodate their disabilities, differently-abled individuals could also increase their employment, social and recreational activities.

“Olli” at Your Service

Take, for instance, the recent news that IBM and Local Motors are loading an autonomous electric shuttle bus with technologies to address a range of disabilities. The technologies used on the bus are set to include augmented reality, artificial intelligence and smartphone apps that can help people with vision, hearing, physical and cognitive disabilities.

The IBM-Local Motors vehicles will be called “Olli”, and the vehicles are designed to travel at speeds below 35 miles per hour around neighborhoods. The companies are planning to sell them to cities, counties, airports, universities and private companies. Olli would not have a human drive, and it uses AI-enabled Watson technology to talk with passengers via both voice and text on a tablet. Production on the buses begins in summer 2018 and could be among the first self-driving vehicles in the U.S. 

Time for This Technology

While innovators work to deliver self-driving vehicles, researchers share how the technology could really change the world for disabled and elderly individuals. And recent research shows that not only is there a need for driverless cars for increased mobility, but that it can actually be a boon to the economy.

The Ruderman Family Foundation and Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) recently conducted a study and found that “despite those with disabilities representing almost 20 percent of the U.S. population, the most recent government survey indicated that six million individuals with a disability had difficulty getting the transportation they need.”

And in the report, the researchers estimate that removing mobility issues that self-driving cars could resolve would let 2 million people with disabilities get to work. The study also estimates that driverless vehicles could save nearly $20 billion in healthcare costs from circumstances such as missed appointments.

Vint Cerf, known as the father of the Internet, recently discussed the obligation of technology innovators to use their know-how to advance services and products for those with disabilities.

“It’s a crime that the most versatile device on the planet, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology,” Cerf has been quoted as saying in an interview last month, according to a CNET article. “It’s almost criminal that programmers have not had their feet held to the fire to build interfaces that are accommodating for people with vision problems or hearing problems or motor problems.”

Denise Dubie
By Denise Dubie | April 27, 2017