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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Will Persons with Disabilities be Left Out of the AV Revolution?

Automobile manufacturers are teaming with city planners, traffic planners and highway Engineers in the hopes of reducing urban traffic, parking demands, and collision injuries and deaths on the nation's highways. Millions of dollars are being sped to Research and Development to address those concerns.

The theory of AV deployment is that such conveyances will not consume parking space thereby reducing the capital costs of urban buildings. Vehicles will be shared-use and be made available on demand like in traditional taxicabs, Uber and Lyft services except without the cost of a driver.

The vast number of collisions, injury and death on the nation's highways are the result of driver error. The hypothesis is in one takes the humans out of the control system then fatigue, distraction, aggressive behaviors and limited reflex/reaction times will not be the cause of those injuries and death. Most of all the effects of intoxication, responsible for fully half of highway deaths, will be solved. These motives are admirable in and of themselves.

The neglected motive for deploying AV is for people who cannot drive due to age, poor eyesight, other disability or waning ability. For such people taxicabs and other modern variants remain beyond the scope of the business model.

As with the vast majority of business models the plan is to skim off the top the most easily served customers and leave the remaining ones for someone else to handle. The customer using a wheelchair has been relegated to an inferior service model called Complementary Paratransit. "Complementary" refers not to being free but being alongside fixed-route public transit.

Taxicab operators have been slow or complete resistant to accessible vehicles for wheelchair using customers even though since 1990 they have been under regulation to serve persons with disabilities. They have not done so using the logic "we don't do that." The Uber and Lyft operations have likewise kept their model such that they do not serve the entire public. They only serve the segment which they deem comfortable doing and profitable.

Urban-based AV are going to be the next generation of automation to eliminate human employment. Taxis and Ubers already serve the limited public who can enter and exit the vehicle which it is still in the travel lane of the urban street. Serving the remaining public is the challenge of AV developers.

Highway driving AV will typically be owner-occupied. That is people will purchase an AV and commute their 30-50 mile radius and make their occasional long-distance inter-city trips. For them the AV is a convenience rather than a necessity. Yes, the AV should significantly reduce the collision rate of such long trips.

The urban circulation of people and vehicles will require 1,000s of hours of "learning" for the AV to be effective. Fortunately such learning is transferable from vehicle to vehicle unlike the learning process of a human driver.

Detroit's Automated People Mover
For persons with disabilities who have been neglected for decades, the AV promises to be the difference between night and day. Unlike the general public, to obtain individualized trips within a local region presently persons with disabilities must apply for and be ruled eligible for Complementary Paratransit services provided by a local transit agency. They must make a reservation one or more days in advance. Such reservations must include the Origin, Destination, desired Pickup time and anticipated return time. Then a shared ride vehicle arrives within a 15 to 20 minute (earlier/later) time frame. Unlike shared use vehicles where a multiple people use the same vehicle one after the other, this ride will be shared ride with other passengers at the same time. Such scheduling seeks to optimize the ride carrying capacity of the vehicle. The passengers get no choice in how many people share their ride, where they are going or for what reason.

AV which can accommodate a wheelchair or two plus a few ambulatory passengers and that can find the curb would be the solution many persons with disabilities have sought for many decades.

The development of an accessible AV system would have some typical characteristics.

  • It would be a minivan sized vehicle that can seat 2 wheelchairs and 3 or 4 ambulatory passengers in the primary passengers group.
  • It would have curb access with ramps on both sides of the vehicle to accommodate service on one-way streets.
  • It would not rely exclusively on voice commands to initiate and conclude a trip.
  • It would be able to find the curb and stop close enough to pickup and discharge the passengers.
  • It would be able to recognize curbside barriers such as utility poles, trees, parking meters, trash bins, benches, fire hydrants, mailboxes, etc. and not stop there.
  • It would be able to attach a form of mobility aid securement to the aid if the passenger or his designated assistant could not do it instead.
  • Such AV stock would be plentiful enough to afford persons with disabilities with the same level of service, timeliness and reliability.

In order for the promise of AV to be realized the users need to be inside the urban service area. This means they will dwell there or will arrive there by other means than a private automobile (AV or otherwise). This opens the market for vanpools, biking, trains, walking and commuter buses. Some of those modes may also be equipped with AI to operate them.

The scenario of an sedan-sized AV being used to first make a long commute then go into service as an urban circulator is a non-starter. Needing to store a car in the city during the day also defeats the purposes of AV in the first place.

Pittsburgh's Failed SKYBUS Project (Circa 1964)
Some cities already have driverless automated transit modes and have for many years. Detroit's People Mover is such a system and is already 30 years old. It operates in a 2.9 mile loop in the central city. Miami operates the Metro Mover on 4.4 miles of elevated track. Both systems are electric and are fully automated. Their usage helps define where future development will occur.  In 1964, Pittsburgh, PA started the controversial Skybus system. It was to be a fully automated rubber tire vehicle which traveled on a concrete fixed guideway.  Even with a demonstration track in the South Hills the project lost political favor and was cancelled.

AV for city streets is a goal to bring such people moving capabilities to private seating running on existing public rights-of-way. While that lofty goal is admirable, cities will ultimately need to invest heavily in new architecture and amenities to make AV a viable form of inner city transportation for everyone.

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