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New app to provide better control to disabled people using autonomous car

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A new app trialled by La Trobe University researchers in partnership with HMI Technologies will provide greater levels of control to people with disabilities using autonomous – or driverless – electric vehicles in the future, and also has important implications for improving current public transport.

Funded by the iMOVE CRC and supported by the Cooperative Research Centres program, an Australian Government initiative, the project developed and trialled an app that allows people with disabilities to control certain elements of an autonomous shuttle bus journey, such as destination, doors opening/closing and departure time.

Researchers worked with the Australian Federation of Disability Organizations (AFDO) to consult with 31 people with various disabilities, including visual impairment, physical impairment and intellectual disability, exploring their experience using the app.

Lead researcher from La Trobe’s Centre for Technology Infusion, Erik van Vulpen, said technology supporting more inclusive design needs to start being incorporated into transport systems.

“With the app, passengers can control certain elements of the vehicle – such as ensuring a bus stops, keeping doors open long enough for passengers to board safely, and ensuring people are properly seated before taking off – which has implications for future driverless transport as well as for current systems,” Erik van Vulpen said.

“When we give control of those elements to the passenger, using accessible technology, we can start reduce the reliance on a driver’s assistance.”

Erik van Vulpen said participant feedback from the trial was positive, and focus groups had also suggested important improvements the research team could implement in future stages of development, particularly in relation to autonomous vehicles.

“Co-designing the app with its intended users was a vital part of the project,” Erik van Vulpen said.

“Participants have identified various areas for improvement, but essentially the technology we need to make autonomous transport – as well as other existing forms of transport – accessible and user-friendly for people with disabilities already exists and could be implemented today.”

Andrew Mehaffey from project partner HMI technologies, who have developed the Ohmio autonomous shuttle bus, said the future was looking bright for this kind of transport.

“Some of the most important users of these types of transport are people living with disability and the elderly,” Andrew Mehaffey said.

“We can see now that autonomous vehicles such as the Ohmio shuttle can provide viable, greener alternatives to more polluting modes of transport – and it’s fantastic to see the technological innovations that support people with disabilities to use these services with ease and confidence.”

Following the successful trial the research team will further refine the app and investigate opportunities to integrate the technology with existing public transport services, and plan for its future use in autonomous vehicles.

More about the study:

  • Participants in the trial had various disabilities, including vision impairment, physical impairment, attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability
  • An app was developed which allowed users to hail the bus, keep the doors open until safely on board, choose destinations and call for assistance
  • The app was designed in accordance with extensive design research to ensure accessibility: with a high contrast black-and-white interface, voice activation and screen reader capabilities

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