Brad Duerstock, left, and Phill Bell, right, have been collaborating for eight years on how to improve the design of vehicles for people with disabilities. (Credit: John Underwood / Purdue University)

Midwestern entrepreneurs are advancing accessible driverless vehicles

Tech developers often focus on getting their product to market, and then they consider adding accommodations for people with disabilities at some point down the road. Some Midwestern researchers and entrepreneurs strive to incorporate accommodations into autonomous vehicles while development is still in its early stages, instead of retroactively adding accessibility features once the technology is mainstream.

“It’s really the wrong way to go to figure out how to adapt technology for a wheelchair user after already developing the technology,” said Brad Duerstock, Purdue University industrial and biomedical engineering professor and a wheelchair user himself, in a news release. “But if, instead, we consider, ‘Hey, these are all the needs,’ and then create some standards based on the minimum requirements of what the entire population needs, we can design the vehicle around those minimum standards.”

Purdue University professor Brad Duerstock.

Winning idea

Duerstock and Brandon Pitts, assistant professor of industrial engineering, lead a team of Purdue engineers that won a national competition for their autonomous vehicle design concept, and they want to help establish wide-reaching standards for AV accessibility. 

The Inclusive Design Challenge, a U.S. Department of Transportation competition to spur innovation, tasked participants with developing an AV concept that accommodates people with a mobility-limiting disability. The Purdue team collaborated with Indiana-based vehicle accessibility solution company BraunAbility on their driverless vehicle prototype that serves people with a variety of disabilities, including physical and sensory. 

The vehicle has a voice-activated, wheelchair-accessible ramp as well as cameras and sensors to help passengers understand their surroundings. Passengers control internal conditions, like lighting and entertainment, with an app. An internal screen provides trip information and assistance for riders who have impaired hearing or who can’t use their hands to press buttons.

“I stepped inside of it and felt like I was standing in the future,” said Phill Bell, senior director of global corporate strategy for BraunAbility. “I hadn’t seen this sort of integration anywhere. This is the first iteration of what’s coming down the line.”

The team will use its $1 million award money to create a center for accessible transportation design at Purdue.

From lab to streets

Many accessible AV advancements are also coming out of Michigan, a long-standing automotive innovation stronghold. Mobility services that include accessible autonomous shuttles have cropped up in Detroit and Ann Arbor

Researchers have launched pilots to prove concepts with real-world testing of accessible AV technologies that were developed in the lab. These help to influence the statewide vision for autonomous mobility and accessibility. 

One of those projects is a collaboration from Western Michigan University, the University of Michigan, and engineering firm Pratt & Miller. The team modified two driverless shuttles for accessibility, including adding ramps and wheelchair restraints. They held a two-week pilot on the WMU campus and gathered real-world data about users’ interactions with the vehicles. 

“For the longest time, automated driverless technology has been focused primarily on making the vehicle do what the engineers want it to do,” said Clive D’Souza, University of Michigan assistant professor of engineering, in a news release. “We asked the question, ‘How do we take this really cool technology and turn it into an accessible, inclusive service?’” 

Personal experience influences work

Jen Schlegel, center. (Credit: Ohio State University)

Ohio State University graduate and “serial innovator” Jen Schlegel also focuses on improving the lives of people with disabilities by considering accessibility at the start of technology development. Schlegel founded the startup BeEnabled, a mobility and accessibility design firm. 

She won the university’s 2020 President’s Prize for her dedication to improving people’s lives with accessibility, and the award provided $50,000 in startup funding. She was an intern with DriveOhio, an Ohio Department of Transportation smart vehicle initiative, where she helped with strategies for a campus paratransit system that uses driverless vehicles. Schlegel gave input on increasing accessible mobility service reliability based on challenges she encountered using a wheelchair, such as the higher cost and long periods spent waiting. 

“I spend more hours in my day in transportation than I do any other activity,” Schlegel said in a news release. “Being able to have an opportunity to share that experience with a group of people that are interested in having that conversation about what transportation looks like in the future for all populations, especially my own personal disabled population, is really something that I care about.”

Photo above: Brad Duerstock, left, and Phill Bell, right, have been collaborating for eight years on how to improve the design of vehicles for people with disabilities. (Credit: John Underwood / Purdue University)