Purdue University researchers and their collaborators developed a realistic demonstration of an...

Purdue University researchers and their collaborators developed a realistic demonstration of an accessible design concept that industry could incorporate into its development of autonomous vehicles.

Photo: Purdue University/John Underwood

Purdue University announced that engineering professors Brad Duerstock and Brandon Pitts partnered with BraunAbility to build an automated vehicle-like prototype that demonstrates the features autonomous transportation would need to serve people with a range of disabilities.

The researchers call the prototype EASI RIDER, which stands for “Efficient, Accessible and Safe Interaction in a Real Integrated Design Environment for Riders with disabilities.”

EASI RIDER was built using parts and expertise from three other companies in addition to BraunAbility: Local Motors, Schaeffler, and Prehensile Technologies, a startup run by Duerstock and Purdue alum Jeffrey Ackerman, according to the university's news release.

“We’ve had the steady benefit of Professor Duerstock’s expertise over the years,” said Phill Bell, senior director of global corporate strategy for BraunAbility. “It’s always good to have users come in and say, ‘I don’t like this interface’ or ‘I can’t see where I’m backing up in my wheelchair.’ As an engineer, Professor Duerstock can help steer us into the direction we should be headed.” 

Purdue said EASI RIDER isn’t meant to be driven (it doesn’t have a motor), but the researchers showed that whether a person’s disability is physical or sensory, they can successfully operate the vehicle’s different controls all by themselves. EASI RIDER not only has a voice-activated, wheelchair-accessible ramp but also uses sensors to prevent inadvertent deployment of the ramp into obstacles when parked.

A mechanism within EASI RIDER helps secure a wheelchair into the safest position during a ride. The prototype can accommodate up to two wheelchair users at once and has reconfigurable seats for riders who don’t use wheelchairs.

“A lot of the features we included in the vehicle were intended to enable what we call a ‘seamless travel experience,’ which means that interacting with the vehicle is so natural that a person doesn’t know they’re interacting with it,” said Pitts.

Cameras and sensors help passengers to better understand their surroundings in the vehicle and allow a remote operator to communicate with them in the case of emergency situations where the passengers might need assistance. Using their personal mobile phone or tablet, a traveler can control the vehicle’s features such as interior lighting, the horn, headlights, and entertainment.

A screen inside of the vehicle would help a rider see the operator or access a map of their route if they are hearing impaired or aren’t able to use their hands to press buttons.

The EASI RIDER team was awarded $1 million with its Inclusive Design Challenge win. Duerstock and Pitts will be using the prize money to establish a center at Purdue on accessible design for transportation, according to the news release.

“We envision that our work will help build a more equitable transportation future and, in turn, promote a higher quality of life for people at different points along the ability spectrum,” Pitts said.

The team will also continue researching ways to develop technology that is universal for a wide range of disabilities.

“Even though I have my own unique perspective, it’s not everyone’s perspective,” Duerstock said. “It takes some depth in understanding of what are everyone’s needs.”

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