How to make autonomous vehicles more age-inclusive

by Adam Felts

This post was written by David Hong, a Master's student at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) who conducted his thesis with the AgeLab.

His thesis, titled "Age-Inclusive Design Framework for On-Demand, Shared Autonomous Vehicles," can be viewed and read here.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to make transportation safer, more accessible, and convenient - in particular for vulnerable and underserved groups, such as older adults or persons with disabilities.

This future, however, is not guaranteed. If we do not carefully study the mobility needs of users – young and old – and design to meet them, we stand to repeat the same fate of the past. The rise of the transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft in the early 2010s also brought promises of greater accessibility for those at the margins, but in most operational geographies did not deliver on these hopes.

As driving automation becomes more advanced, automakers are beginning to redesign vehicles entirely without driving controls. I believe that this phase of redesign will be a defining moment of whether mobility access can be improved or relatively worsened for traditionally underserved groups. My project, “Age-Inclusive Design Framework for On-Demand, Shared Autonomous Vehicles” engages with people who use mobility devices (e.g. wheelchairs, rollators, walkers, etc) and caregivers traveling with children to see what experiences and design features they would value when riding fully driverless vehicles.

While the paper above goes into much more detail on user experience and design considerations for AVs, accessibility advocates and mobility researchers should be asking AV makers and state regulators the following questions:

To whom will AV services be fully accessible?

That is, what kind of users will be able to use these services door to door, and equally importantly, who will not be able?

Will services be able to accommodate and serve minors; persons using powerchairs, wheelchairs, walkers, or rollators; parents traveling with multiple children who need car seats and strollers; persons with visual and/ or hearing impairments which can become more prevalent with age; and persons with cognitive disabilities, e.g. with intellectual disabilities, autism, epilepsy, learning disabilities, dementia, or memory loss?

What are the design features that will make travel practical, safe, convenient and enjoyable - rather than simply possible, accessible or tolerable?

In consumer products, there is a difference between ‘having an option’ to do something and ‘being a clear logistic choice’ to do it. For example, one parent shared that if they need to take a 10-minute inner city ride, but it takes 15 minutes safely securing their children into an AV, this would not be an appealing proposition over a personal motor vehicle in many scenarios. The same may potentially be true for a blind traveler who needs a suite of sensory wearables to geolocate a vehicle and experiences failure points in UX along the journey. Conversely, if the blind traveler is able to navigate and work with accessibility-compatible features (e.g. on their phone) or a parent is able to request rides with easy-to-use child safety features that meet manufacturer standards, then the service may be worthwhile.

Where and how will AV fleets be making their pick-up and drop-off (PU/DO) connections with the built environment?

In order to make rides usable by persons using mobility aids - like powerchairs, wheelchairs, rollators, etc. - it is not enough to design vehicles to be accessible (though this is a very important part). Rather, cities/towns and AV operators need to work in unison to connect riders to pedestrian paths. Imagine you are a powerchair user and the AV is a side-entry vehicle. It double parks and drops you off in a busy street on the road and you do not know where the nearest curb cut is. What is that experience like? If you are an older adult in a rollator who is slow to walk, has poor balance, and has osteoporosis (a condition that affects bone density), and you are dropped off on the road, what is that experience like? What happens when these circumstances  are combined with rainy, windy, or frozen rain conditions?

How a city chooses to incorporate AVs within its broader curb management strategy - along with bikes, delivery vehicles, scooters, cars that also compete for road and curb space - and whether the AV operator chooses to follow those rules of the road are also important considerations. Cities and AV operators coming to an agreement on how pick-up and drop-offs are done may be one of the most challenging and important aspects of ensuring accessible AV services.

When do older adults with mobility challenges, parents traveling with children, persons with disabilities, (and possibly even minors) get brought fully into the fold?

When we look at geographies like California and specifically San Francisco, AV expansion is happening at a rate that does not guarantee coverage for persons with disabilities. In every operational geography (at present or in the future), accessibility advocates should be asking - what proportion of AV fleets in operational will be fully wheelchair accessible (and ideally be able to serve users of rollators, powerchairs, larger baby strollers - in terms of boarding but also securement), and what is the percentage of accessibility requests made vs. those fulfilled within a comparably reasonable timeframe? These questions are pertinent the moment AV services begin piloting (even with safety drivers onboard) - because if AV tests are being done without older adults, children, or persons with disabilities, this is not a great sign for the level of priority companies are placing to these segments of users.

Why might an AV maker or operator have an incentive to serve these population segments? Is this something inherent to their business model and customer base (e.g. are they a business-to-government company looking to augment and compliment transit services and need to meet accessibility laws), do they operate in communities that have many older adult travelers, or does the business see these population segments as non-essential customers? And in each case, is there a role for federal, state, and local policymakers to put in compensating regulations?

How are AV makers and operators collecting user input from older adults, parents traveling with children, and persons with different disabilities? What is their process to incorporate ongoing user feedback for continuous improvement?

How are AV makers and operators thinking about the above questions across a traveler’s entire journey (from trip preparation all the way to reaching their final destination of travel beyond the curb)?

How are they demonstrating, measuring, and communicating back performance and accountability to accessibility goals?

Driving automation has the latent potential to increase transportation reach and access to those who wish to travel more safely and more independently - including older adults, persons with disabilities, and people under the age of 18. This potential, however, will not be realized through market forces alone. Instead, it will require a great deal of advocacy for inclusion and accountability in years to come.

More Detailed Information:

The research project entitled “Age-Inclusive Design Framework for On-Demand, Shared Autonomous Vehicles” investigates questions of ‘How can we imagine a fully autonomous future if we do not have a viable transportation pathway for younger children and older adults?’ ‘What challenges might users of mobility devices (e.g., rollators, baby strollers) face in using driverless vehicles with hitherto unseen vehicle forms?’ ‘What spatial allowances and features should vehicle designers consider when re-imagining the interior space of autonomous vehicles?’ Analysis is carried out across ten (10) vehicle touchpoints, and presents a series of recommendations aimed at design, operation, policy reform. Information comes from interviews with older adults, parents, grandparents, caregivers, and AV industry experts.

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About the Author

Photo of Adam Felts
Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

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