Availability of Autonomous Vehicles (AV) will deliver 'life enhancing' opportunities for many with disabilities. As part of the 'Initiatives for Independent Living' program, AVs represent a giant leap forward, ensuring freedom of travel for millions of citizens.
Having access to personal transportation for those unable to drive a conventional vehicle will provide a wider range of opportunities to access healthcare, public institutions, find work, to progress in their current career, or widen their range of activities and social interactions. Provision of personal and individual transportation systems means enhanced personal liberty and fulfilment.
Public AV schemes will also put personalized point-to-point transportation systems within the reach of those without the financial resources to own a private vehicle.
Unfortunately, well-meaning specifiers, designers and engineers will readily commit to accessibility without any real or first-hand experience of what is really required to make the infrastructure usable by a valued and sizable sector of our communities. Accessibility is too often an afterthought that some believe can just be 'bolted on' at the end of the design and development process. Remember the early Smart City projects?
Considering the rapid pace at which AV technology is developing; it is clear that we have a unique but very time limited opportunity to deliver guidance (and regulation) to influence the design of AV vehicles. We must also ensure provision of an accessible infrastructure in which those vehicles will operate. This will be essential to ensure availability and accessibility for all. This is a 'once in a generation' opportunity that will have far reaching implications for decades to come. We must not waste this opportunity.
Accessibility standards for Autonomous Vehicles must therefore be established as a matter of urgency. It will be almost impossible to establish mandates retrospectively. Especially if a diverse range of specifications are already in place, vehicles are widely deployed and significant investments in infrastructure have already been made.
The company (for which we, the authors, work) provides Assistive Technology to the kiosk and self-service industry. In our experience the needs of those with cognitive, sensory, mobility or dexterity impairment are often not correctly or widely understood. We often have to explain why a touchscreen is not accessible to anyone who cannot see, read or physically interact with the screen. This genuinely comes as a surprise to many system designers.
While there are many challenges in delivering 'accessibility' in an AV environment, technology already exists to support tactile navigation of audible content, voice commanded applications and touchless remote interfaces via smart-phones. These emerging technologies can and should be used in combination as a multi-technology interface to deliver the most accessible infrastructure possible. Effective use of AI and multi-technology interfaces will help to ensure that users can request (hail) an AV, indicate their current location and required destination, make specific requests such as reporting an emergency, requesting assistance, stopping to pick up a friend, alerting the AV if they need to change the destination whilst en route, specifying a specific drop off point at the destination etc. etc.
It is predicted that voice commanded systems will be one of the primary interfaces for interaction with AVs. To maximize the effectiveness of these systems there are various considerations:
• Microphones for use as part of a voice commanded system must be 'beam focused' (designed to filter extraneous sound and remain focused on the user's voice and position). This to help ensure efficient voice capture in a potentially noisy environment. The Voice Command Application must also recognize and respond to synthesized human voice devices as used by those without the ability to speak.
• Audio speakers must also be 'focused' to project sound towards the user at frequencies that can be more easily heard in a moving vehicle. There must also be provision to connect headphones and adjust sound volume. Headsets with integrated microphones must also be accommodated. This may require external speakers and microphones to be muted when a headset with an integrated mic is connected.
• The hardware (microphones and speakers) must be designed to withstand hard use and abuse in unattended locations.
• They must be sealed to allow for regular wash down and sanitation procedures.
• Active microphones deployed in public spaces may raise concerns about privacy and security. However this can and has been addressed. Technology has been developed (and deployed) to detect the presence of a person entering a defined addressable zone. Once detected that person can be advised (audibly and visually) that a voice command facility is available for their use. A voice command such as 'I understand and agree' or a 'confirmation button press' can then be used to activate the microphone. The microphone can be automatically deactivated when the person leaves the addressable zone or verbally commands the microphone to deactivate.
These issues and opportunities were addressed and explored in a whitepaper, published by the authors, prior to the launch of public use voice command products. (The whitepaper has been uploaded and posted along with this comment.)
The authors would like to offer any assistance required in defining the scope and content of any guidance or specifications to ensure accessibility of AV's or the infrastructure to ensure availability of a public use AV.