Even a quick dive into the latest transport news shows that artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are positioned to make big waves in the transportation space. Many fleet managers and transit agencies are paying close attention to AV pilot projects unfolding across the world and planning how to integrate the technology into their fleets.
Most of the AV excitement is generated by stories about futuristic personal vehicles or streamlined public transit, but it’s important not to overlook an area where autonomous technology could offer the biggest benefits: paratransit. Both AI and AVs hold real potential to improve travel for paratransit customers.
Autonomous Vehicles Allow for Spontaneity
For people with a disability who rely on demand-response paratransit services, the fun and convenience of spontaneous travel is often lost. Rather than being able to drive somewhere on a whim, paratransit users must book their rides in advance and within a set schedule. This often even means having to schedule a trip one or two days in advance.
Are AVs a solution to this problem? The early answer appears to be yes—especially when considering vehicles at autonomy levels four and five (those that can drive themselves without human assistance). In late 2017, Waymo was the first company to test vehicles on the road with no operator behind the wheel, and other companies are following suit. In a move clearly demonstrating the autonomous opportunities for travellers with visibility limitations, earlier tests of Google’s self-driving vehicle even included a blind operator behind the wheel.
But while autonomous vehicles appear capable of providing transport to people with disabilities, there are still challenges that need to be addressed:
- Cost: While the cost of AV technology is declining, the purchase price could still remain staggeringly high. AVs need to be affordable for the passengers who need them most.
- Accessibility: The image many people have in mind when it comes to AVs is one of sleek, high-tech vehicles straight from a science-fiction movie. To meet the needs of passengers with disabilities, however, AVs need to be more than stylish—they need to be accessible and equipped to transport wheelchairs. This ease-of-use should be implemented from the beginning.
- Convenience: Understandably, the AVs being tested today are programmed to drive conservatively and cautiously, obeying every letter of the law. This style of driving is unrealistic and slow, resulting in frustrated motorists. AVs of the future need to drive more like humans, and also be able to deal with unexpected human behaviour.
AI Improves Quality of Life
As the main mobility service for people with disabilities, paratransit is in need of streamlining and optimizing. Technology can definitely help in this regard. Most paratransit trips are booked over the phone, and planned routes are prone to delays. Dispatch systems that leverage AI present a possible solution to these inefficiencies. For example, ADEPT IQ is our new route planning and dispatch system that uses cloud-based technology and AI to respond in real-time to changes like traffic congestion and weather conditions. Early results are promising and show that this technology could make paratransit a more convenient and viable choice.
AI is also set to improve the lives of people living with disability in a more direct manner. For example, Seeing AI is a talking camera app created by Microsoft that can narrate the world for blind users. The proliferation of hands-free smart speakers is another form of AI that can change lives. Virtual assistant products like Google Home and Amazon Echo allow users to search the web, ask questions, set reminders and more using nothing but their voices. Integrating these technologies into the transit system, both in vehicles and at stations, is an as-yet untapped opportunity to improve the lives of disabled travellers.
When it comes to advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and artificial intelligence, the conversation tends to focus on benefits to non-disabled passengers. It is important to consider the massive benefits that these technologies can have for paratransit customers as well, and make plans to implement them from the early stages of the AI and AV revolution.