Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) partnered with Prospect SV and Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) on their new research, “Gaps and Opportunities in Accessibility Policy for Autonomous Vehicles,” which documents ideas on how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology as deployed by VTA for the AAV (Autonomous Accessible Vehicle) pilot demonstration project (and other similar deployments) may be made more responsive to the needs of the people with disabilities.

Nearly one in five people in the U.S. have a disability, and people aged 18 to 64 with disabilities make 28% fewer trips per day (2.6 v. 3.6 trips) on average than people without disabilities. These statistics highlight the considerable suppressed demand for travel by the individuals with disabilities that is currently not being met.

The authors evaluated how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other relevant research could inform the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles (particularly autonomous transit and paratransit) and developed a rating framework to evaluate how/to what extent vendors and technological frameworks, including VTA AAV, address accessibility requirements.

The research revealed that at full vehicle autonomy resulting in the absence of an onboard operator, tasks such as ingress-egress, securement of passengers and carry-on items, and the communications with passengers will need to be safe, efficient, and independent. The biggest challenges in this area may be:

  • The need to handle these tasks for a wide range of disability types, most of them currently supported by the vehicle operator.
  • To put appropriate governance on data as individual information for those with cognitive and physical disabilities, which will be increasingly prevalent and subject to potential breaches of privacy.

“From a practical standpoint, opportunities exist for policy partnerships and collaborations between public and private entities. For example, these might include enhancement of infrastructure such as curb ramps and bus stops for AAV travel,” explain the authors.

While autonomous vehicles are being built with the purpose of curbing people’s need to operate the vehicles, lack of ability to drive is not the only barrier people with disabilities face while traveling. The simple acts of entering and getting out of the vehicle might pose difficulties for many people with disabilities, not only wheelchair users. This makes well-thought-out considerations for people with disabilities essential at the early stages of design and development.