Safety, sustainability and convenience that autonomous vehicle (AV) technology provides are primary catalysts for advancing mobility. But, there is a fourth trigger that often gets overlooked or confused with convenience: accessibility.
Global tech and business clusters are developing AV innovations to meet community needs. However, accessibility still remains largely unaddressed, as it doesn’t immediately lead to financial returns for a startup or sales team.
Accessibility will solve critical transit gaps for persons with disabilities, seniors, individuals living in remote areas and even those with limited income who do not live walking distance from their jobs, school, medical appointments or grocery stores.
For passengers in wheelchairs and motorized scooters, barriers often begin with modes of transportation and the hardware that is provided and/or missed. In response to criticism and a lawsuit, both Uber and Lyft recognized this and launched wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAV) services in New York City, and D.C., among other cities. Rather than retrofitting vehicles, it’s better and more cost effective to incorporate more inclusive design tactics earlier in the process, especially as mobility continues to evolve.
Through the $8 Million Michigan Mobility Challenge, a partnership between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Michigan’s Governor’s office, 13 new transportation projects are being piloted throughout the state that address mobility gaps for seniors, persons with disabilities and veterans.
These projects are improving the path to mobility and increasing efficiency. For example, Pratt & Miller partnered with academia and industry to use technology and innovation to solve mobility gaps, providing an AV shuttle service for students with disabilities on the campus of Western Michigan University.
Leveraging public/private partnerships can also address transportation challenges impacting the quality of life for citizens. Through the NAIAS 2020 Michigan Mobility Challenge, five industry innovators were selected to rollout their demonstrations focused on life-changing automated and connected vehicle technology throughout downtown Detroit in June. Three of them are focused exclusively on improving accessibility options for citizens, including NAVYA, who will deploy a fixed route shuttle that includes an automated ramp and restraints for paratransit riders, shuttle suspension kneels at curbs and interior machine vision research; Local Motors, who will deploy self-driving Olli shuttles with automated ramps and wheelchair restraints; and AutoGardian by Smart Cone, who’s leveraging intelligent infrastructure to alert pedestrians through both visual and audible cues.
Public transit is another avenue to increased accessibility. Transportation is ranked as the second-largest expense, and households living in car-dependent locations spend as much as 25 percent of income on transportation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), public transit can save residents more than $10,000 per year. That’s significant. In major cities, riding a bus or using an e-scooter are cheaper alternatives to owning a personal vehicle and paying car insurance. And, those cost-savings flow back into the economy in other ways. Some communities are even considering free public transportation due to its positive impact on economic development. In Michigan, a ten-member coalition recently announced the launch of a year-long public autonomous transportation project, the Grand Rapids Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (AVGR). Servicing the downtown Grand Rapids area, the initiative aims to provide more accessible transportation options to residents, for free, while also understanding the usage of autonomous vehicles in city environments.
Hospitals, airports and campuses are sites that can especially benefit from accessible transportation. To improve paratransit services near the Detroit Medical Center, NAVYA and its partners are using autonomous shuttles to provide mobility services and rebalance mobility for the underserved population.
Accessible transportation also can contribute to a greener environment. Major cities, like Cincinnati, through the Cincinnati Mobility Lab, a three-year partnership with representatives from Uber, the city of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Governments (OKI), the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), are leveraging eco-friendly electric vehicles and studying this impact on ridership.
These types of initiatives are happening all around us, every single day. But in order to make an impact on society, as we look to transform mobility across cities, states and countries, we need to ensure we’re doing so in a way that improves quality of life for our citizens. And that starts with solving mobility gaps and providing people with inclusive, usable access to the goods and services they need.
To learn more, or connect with the people, places and resources dedicated to the evolution of transforming mobility, visit PlanetM.com.