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Technology, Autonomy & Accessibility

#Waymo #Volkswagen


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Whenever there is a new automotive technology developed there tends to be pushback on behalf of automotive journalists who in some cases are, or in more cases fancy themselves to be, better-than-average drivers. Whether it is antilock braking or electronic stability control or even blind-spot detection (seriously: one of my colleagues maintains that all people need to know is how to adjust their sideview mirrors properly and that’s good enough), there is pushback, predicated on the notion that they know how to drive better than any system is going to allow them to, and consequently the technology is irrelevant (as in the case of the mirrors) or annoying (“Why did the ESC kick in when I was carving that curve!?!”).

When it comes to autonomous driving, it is a reaction that a descriptor like “over-the-top” doesn’t come near to describing. It is along the lines of “You’ll have to peel my cold, dead hands from the steering wheel. . . .” And, of course, there is the exaggerated fear that no one will be able to drive their vehicle unimpeded by regulations such that it will be necessary to join some sort of driving club that has its own track if one wants to go out for a spin: the public roads will be robots-only. Not everyone can drive as well as my friends do (or think they do). So they should be among the vanguard promoting the technologies that will make driving better for everyone.

What tends to be overlooked in the discussion about developing autonomous technology is that one of the objectives that those behind the efforts have is to make ground transportation safer. According to the National Safety Council (nsc.org), in 2018 “an estimated 40,000 people lost their lives to car crashes.” That was the third year in a row that at least 40,000 people died on U.S. roads.

What is perhaps a more troubling statistic from the NSC is that some 4.5-million people were “seriously injured” in vehicle crashes last year. It is all too easy to overlook those people who have to live with the sometimes-debilitating consequences of a motor vehicle accident for the rest of their lives.

Let’s face it, if autonomous vehicle technology can help reduce those numbers by even a small percentage it can make a big difference in the lives of plenty of people, not only those who may avoid an accident, but their family and friends who may not have to grieve or deal with the consequences of people who have been grievously injured.

Can autonomous vehicles perform their tasks better than human drivers? At some point the answer to that is an unambiguous “yes.” Look around you the next time you’re driving and notice people who are doing something other than paying attention to the primary task of piloting a two-ton object; notice the people who are driving as though their need to get somewhere quickly is more important than the safety of everyone else who is simply trying to get somewhere.

Then there are those for whom driving is something that they can no longer do or haven’t been able to do.

Anyone who has had a parent or friend who has become too old to effectively drive yet doesn’t want to acknowledge that state of being knows that trying to stop that person from driving is an exceedingly difficult thing. One of the more interesting autonomous vehicle developments right now is being undertaken by Voyage (voyage.auto), which is deploying its fleet of autonomous Pacifica minivans on the 750 miles of road within The Villages senior community in Florida. There are some 125,000 residents there, all of whom are seasoned citizens. Getting to a golf course or movie theater—or, more importantly, a doctor’s appointment—is facilitated by this approach.

Then there are the disabled. Volkswagen Group of America (VWGoA) is taking this portion of the population into account in its Inclusive Mobility Initiative (inclusivemobility.com), which it officially announced on May 1, but which had roots in meetings VWGoA people had with members of the National Federation of the Blind, the National Association of the Deaf and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF). The objective is to have people from the VWGoA Advanced User Experience Studio work with members of these and other groups so that there will be a human-centered approach to the Group’s development of autonomous vehicles and services. As Scott Keogh, president and CEO of VWGoA, put it, “Transportation is the key to full participation in society. And for individuals with disabilities today, the options can be limited. Volkswagen is known as the people’s car company, and as the technology allows, we want to design vehicles that are more accessible.”

Whether it is someone like Keogh or John Krafcik from Waymo, accessibility is key for the development of autonomy. And so we should all hope they succeed or work toward helping them realize that success.

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