Pitt To Study How Autonomous Vehicles Can Better Serve Those With Disabilities

Aug 4, 2020

The University of Pittsburgh will lead a consortium of institutions to study how autonomous vehicles can be made accessible to those with physical disabilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the school a $1 million grant last week. The department awarded grants to four new University Transportation Centers to advance research and education programs that address transportation challenges. 

“Researchers at these four new [centers] and their consortium members will address important 21st Century transportation topics,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology Diana Furchtgott-Roth. Each center will conduct its research over the next 18 to 24 months.

Pitt will work with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., the Toyota Mobility Foundation and the Merlin Mobility Corporation.

Rory Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Lab at Pitt, will serve as the lead researcher and director of the study. Pitt’s UTC will complete three projects within the study, according to Cooper.

  • A review of the scientific and public literature about accessibility transportation and autonomous vehicles;
  • A survey of consumers and car manufacturers including focus groups and mobility mapping; and
  • A consumer market model where data and guidelines for autonomous vehicle developers will be displayed.

Pittsburgh has become a hub for autonomous vehicle development, with companies like Uber and Argo AI testing vehicles on the streets. But Cooper worries developers aren’t thinking about accessibility as a standard to meet alongside the safety and efficiency metrics.

"There's been autonomous vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh for several years, and yet they're not accessible," Cooper said.

He expects the study to help developers and manufacturers be more mindful, “So that as these systems eventually become ubiquitous, they're enabling for individuals with disabilities rather than creating artificial barriers."

However, some autonomous vehicle developers in Pittsburgh have contacted Cooper with interest in the study, he said. He declined to identify which companies expressed interest.

According to Cooper, the project marries Pittsburgh’s innovative autonomous vehicle sector with its history of developing disability technology.

“I’m glad to see that we’re able to marry those two domains together,” he said. “We have the potential to change the world.”