Guest Op-Ed: Connected, Automated, Shared and Electric: What is Missing from This Picture?

Guest Op-Ed: Connected, Automated, Shared and Electric: What is Missing from This Picture?

April 09, 2020  | Carol Schweiger, President, Schweiger Consulting

If AVs are not accessible to persons with disabilities, the elderly, or low-income individuals, we will not be providing transportation services to a significant portion of our society and to those who may need these services more than others. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, we need to ensure that we consider accessibility of AVs before or as they are being designed rather than afterwards. Further, automated vehicles should be available to and affordable for all travelers, not just those who can pay a premium to purchase or use them.

So what are we doing to ensure accessibility and inclusivity? At the Federal level, there are several initiatives that are directly addressing this question. As stated in AV 4.0, “The U.S. Government will support AV technologies that enhance freedom by providing additional options for consumers to access goods and services, allowing individuals to live and work in places that fit their families’ needs and expanding access to safe, affordable, accessible, and independent mobility options to all people, including those with disabilities and older Americans.” Existing USDOT initiatives that are addressing AV accessibility and equity to some degree include the Accessible Transportation Technologies Research Initiative (ATTRI), Mobility on Demand (MOD) Sandbox Program, the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA’s) Mobility for All Pilot Program, and FTA’s Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) Program.

In an article I wrote for Intelligent Transport in December 2018, I described several perspectives of AV accessibility: regulatory and compliance with the ADA given that currently, the ADA does not apply to AVs; technology that facilitates transportation accessibility (in part, the result of work conducted as part of the ATTRI); and the impact of the concept of the “Complete Trip.” In terms of regulations, not much has changed at the Federal level since I wrote that article, other than in AV 4.0, the following statement was made: “The U.S. Government will modernize or eliminate outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of AVs—or that do not address critical safety, mobility, and accessibility needs—to encourage a consistent regulatory and operational environment.”1

Fortunately, progress has been made in terms of accessible technology, as USDOT has recently introduced two key USDOT initiatives: the Inclusive Design Challenge and the Complete Trip – ITS4US Deployment Program. The purpose of the Inclusive Design Challenge is to “to incentivize creation of innovative, inclusive design solutions to enable access to (AV), also known as highly automated Vehicles (HAV), for persons with disabilities. The Challenge seeks to emphasize the opportunities and challenges introduced by AVs which human occupants are not expected to drive, nor supervise the driving functions of the automated system, or perform any other element of the dynamic driving task as long as the vehicle remains within its operational design domain.” A Request for Information (RFI) was solicited and comments received by January 31, 2020. It is expected that the Challenge will be conducted in two-stages: Proof-of-Concept Ideas some time in 2020; and Prototype/Demonstrations with a final demonstration and grand prize some time in 2021. “Solutions may include both hardware and software solutions aimed to address barriers including: (1) locating an AV; (2) entering an AV; (3) securing equipment/baggage; (4) inputting destinations; (5) interacting with the vehicle in routine and emergency situations; or (6) exiting an AV.

The idea behind the Complete Trip –ITS4US Deployment Program is that technology can not only facilitate trip-making but also can ensure that all stages of a trip can be completed. “A complete trip may include multiple links or trip segments such as: trip planning, outdoor navigation, intersection crossing, boarding/using vehicles, transferring between vehicles/modes/payment services, using stops/stations, indoor/outdoor transitions, indoor navigation and completing travel to destination. If one segment of the trip is inaccessible, unreliable or inefficient, then access to subsequent segments is broken, and the trip cannot be completed.” It is expected that a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the first phase of this program (Concept Development) will be released in Summer 2020.

In terms of equity and inclusivity of AVs, a significant amount of research has been conducted, including USDOT’s examination of the technology and policy implications of transport equity. A framework entitled ‘STEPS to Transportation Equity’ was developed as part of this effort. Spatial, Temporal, Economic, Physiological, and Social (STEPS) barriers were identified. The STEPS framework is being applied to AVs through a toolkit that is under development as part of National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) project entitled Mobility-on-Demand and Automated Driving Systems: A Framework for Public-Sector Assessment (Project 20-102(11)). Also, in the forthcoming MOD Planning and Implementation Guide, STEPS is applied by identifying equity challenges and use cases/examples that MOD may be able to help overcome.

Further, The Greenlining Institute produced “Autonomous Vehicle Heaven or Hell? Creating a Transportation Revolution that Benefits All,” which identified 12 equity recommendations to ensure AV equity and inclusivity. These recommendations range from “impos[ing] progressive, equitable fees on personally-owned autonomous vehicles and direct the resulting revenue towards subsidizing trips of low-income people and towards financing community-driven walking, biking, and transit projects in marginalized communities” to “establish[ing] community/cooperatively-owned business models of [fleets of autonomous vehicles that are electric and shared] FAVES and partner with clean energy co-ops, retail centers, affordable housing, and public transit agencies.”

In summary, as of April 2020, various efforts at the Federal level recognize the importance of designing accessible AVs and ensuring that they can be used by anyone regardless of their demographics. However, regulating AV accessibility and equity is lagging behind the development of AV technology.  Hopefully, we will not experience what resulted from the passage of the ADA – unfunded but required changes to public transportation vehicles as well as to policies and operations. If accessibility and equity are considered in the design and development of AVs, even in the absence of regulation, we will ensuring accessibility and inclusivity when AVs become part of our mobility ecosystem.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Carol Schweiger, President of Schweiger Consulting, has over 40 years of experience, and is nationally and internationally recognized in transportation technology consulting. Her wide-ranging and in-depth expertise is in several specialty areas including technology strategies for public agencies; public transit technology, traveler information strategies and systems, systems engineering, and equity and accessibility. Ms. Schweiger has provided over 65 transportation agencies with technology technical assistance. Ms. Schweiger serves as Co-Chair of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee on Innovative Public Transportation Services and Technologies, member of the Program Committee of the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) World Congress, TRB ITS Committee and TRB Forum on Preparing for Automated Vehicles and Shared Mobility, a Charter Member of the Public Transportation Systems and Services (PTSS) Committee of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, and past Chairperson of the New England Intelligent Transportation Society.

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