How can driverless cars broaden access for people with disabilities?

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than a week after Waymo announced it began testing fully autonomous vehicles in Austin, company heads joined panelists from different subsectors of the disability community to discuss how the technology can expand accessibility for riders.

The panel was held as part of the 2024 South by Southwest Conference and Festivals. Among those speaking Tuesday included Emily Coleman, the superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin.

Coleman said one of the key focuses of the school is to encourage students to be as independent as possible while gaining the tools and skillsets necessary to making decisions about their own futures.

“[It’s about] finding more and more ways where our students or individuals who are blind can be independent in their own lives to make their own choices, and having agency of self is so important,” she said. “And just that whole concept that you can get from Point A to Point B with just relying on yourself and not another human being is — I can’t think of anything more empowering and a bigger stride toward greater independence.”

Part of that independence comes through access to choice. Lauren Schwendimann, Waymo One’s head of UX design, told KXAN Tuesday it’s also about diversifying local transit systems to incorporate both public, mass transit options in addition to autonomous technology.

ICYMI: Waymo starts testing fully autonomous vehicles in Austin

“Yes, we are adding an option and choice is important,” Schwendimann said. “But also, it’s important that the service integrates into the interfaces within the existing ecosystem and meets people where they’re at….by understanding people’s needs, you can kind of fit into their life in a way that it’s not about your product or service, [but] it’s about really enabling them to achieve their goals.”

Part of the way to fully integrate the technology into an existing transit system is by working cooperatively with those within the disability community. Tuesday’s panel also included Bee Martin Lee, CEO at Epilepsy Foundation Of America, and Camille Ridley, the vice president of marketing and development at United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona.

By working with these various organizations and community members, Schwendimann said Waymo is able to solicit direct feedback on ways to better adapt the technology to be as accessible as possible.

Some of the AV fleets’ current features came from that same feedback, Schwendimann added. One added component is a compass-like feature that will tell people how far away they are from a Waymo vehicle, which can be particularly helpful for those who are blind or have vision impairments.

A second element — and one of Waymo’s “most loved” features, Schwendimann said — is riders can use the app’s technology to honk the horn of the vehicle to ensure they’re near the correct one.

“Those are just two examples of features we’ve built while kind of trying to understand the needs of blind and low-vision people and get their feedback and refining it,” Schwendimann said.

In the near-term future, Schwendimann said Waymo is working to hone its pickup and drop-off capabilities to better meet people who have vision impairments or mobility limitations. Longer term, Waymo is striving to expand its technology to build out fully autonomous, wheelchair accessible vehicles. Right now, the company does offer wheelchair accessible options, but those feature human drivers.

All of this conversation, Coleman said, is rooted in this idea of equity. It’s not uncommon for people who are blind or have other physical disabilities to be denied access for service, she said; she recounted instances of students and staff at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired experiencing it firsthand.

But by removing that human bias factor, Coleman said she hopes this broadens out access so riders of all capabilities can utilize the service.

“Taking that human bias out of a rideshare is, I think it’s kind of an equity game changer, really,” Coleman said. “Because [human bias] is just an innate part of who we are. So it’s going to make a big difference as a person with a cane doesn’t have to be afraid that the car’s gonna pull up, see a cane, and then decide not to give them a ride.”

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