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Self-Driving Cars Can Be a Boon for Those with Disabilities

August 7, 2020
Source: Forbes

A new study has begun in Pittsburgh to study the impact of self-driving cars on those with disabilities. I’m going to skip to the end and predict that the result will be overwhelmingly positive.

While I was working on the Google Car (now Waymo) I pushed that we begin with a service for the disabled. That did not happen, but the first big public demonstration involved allowing a local advocate for the blind to run his errands in Google’s first prototype. Steve Mahan, the rider, found it incredibly liberating, a taste of being able to go out on his own again with the freedom of a car for the first time since he lost his sight.

Mahan returned later to ride completely alone in Google’s 3rd generation vehicle. Sergey Brin, in charge of the project at the time, was keen to show this capability.

It’s not just the vision impaired who gain something here, there are a large number of disabilities that affect mobility, including of course, the inability to walk. Today, transportation in a wheelchair is quite challenging for many. Due to the small market, specially adapted cars and vans can often be quite expensive, particularly for a population where income is often lower. Many are left with transit, which often has many issues.

In the United States, the ADA requires that any city with a transit system operate a “paratransit” system to serve those who can use or get to the existing transit system. The result isn’t great. In the USA, the average paratransit ride costs around $30 to deliver, but the agencies can charge no more than twice a transit fare. In some cities the cost is almost $60. At the same time, the service can be terrible — to keep costs down (!) you have to book rides a day in advance, and there is an hour window for when your pickup will happen. In some cities, realizing how costly it is to send out their wheelchair vans, they allow disabled folks to use taxis or Uber/Lyft at a subsidized price if they can ride in one. It saves money and provides better service. However, they still have to restrict it because $4 Uber is too good and would face over-use if unrestricted.

One interesting option comes from the ability to have a robotaxi fleet with many different custom vehicles. Already it makes sense to fill the fleet with vehicles of different sizes to fit the number of passengers. If there is one passenger, send a small, efficient one passenger car. If you have 6, then send the big minivan. Avoid moving empty seats and extra iron. The fleets can also include (and will presumably by law have to include) accessible vehicles.

[Photo removed. Caption:] Kenguru car for wheelchair users. It’s hollow, and you just roll in.

My favorite accessible vehicle design is the Kenguru, which originated in Hungary. This is a small, one-person city vehicle that is hollow. Wheelchair users (including the woman who bought the company) can just roll right into it even more easily than a walking person can get into a car. Clamp the chair down, belt up and be on your way. This is hugely more convenient than both vans with lifts or cars with regular seats and hand controls. By all reports, wheelchair users love it, but the market for specialty wheelchair vehicles is too small in today’s world. It won’t be in the future because in a taxi fleet, these vehicles can be shared among all those who need them.

With electric power and self-drive, it’s very easy to make a car with a flat floor and hollow shell. It’s also easy to put spaces in vans and group transport for chairs to roll into.

Another part of access is cost. Today, car ownership is expensive at around $7,500 per year, and Taxis/Uber/Lyft cost $2/mile or more. Everybody developing robotaxi fleet service hopes to bring that way down. Today, when worked out per mile, the all-in cost of private car ownership is 40-60 cents/mile. That’s with all profit and fuel, but not including parking. However, low cost single-person city cars can be made to cost less than 15 cents/mile, so it’s not out of reason to predict that profitable rides can be sold — once the field is more mature — as low as 30 cents/mile. Even though that’s unsubsidized, it’s cheaper than a bus ticket for most urban trips. Rides in shared vehicles will be even cheaper. If cities decide to subsidize service for people in need, the cost could be remarkably low. (Today, most transit lines in the USA collect only 35% of their operating costs in the farebox, and that doesn’t include their capital costs.) Almost nobody would suffer from lack of mobility due to lack of income.

There are some disabilities that are hard to solve, such as severe dementia. People in that situation will continue to need an assistant. But most disabilities should discover much much mobility at a much better price.

The coming world of low-cost on-demand delivery will also be a boon for those who have access problems going on a shopping trip from their home. A raft of solutions (the author has invested in one in the sidewalk delivery space) will provide faster and cheaper delivery to the home.

This is not the only new technology promising a boon. While most of us have felt cabin-fever doing all our travel with Zoom, those who already had difficulty moving are seeing a different world where every meeting participant is in the same situation. There will be fewer virtual meetings after the pandemic, to be sure, but that technology is now here to stay, and it has enabling possibilities. While there are downsides to all these technologies in other areas of life, the picture for access looks very good.

Link: Go to website for News Source
https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradtempleton/2020/08/05/self-driving-cars-can-be-a-boon-for-those-with-disabilities/#42c8667a4017


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