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Despite their much-lauded potential, designing autonomous vehicles for use by passengers with mobility, hearing, visual issues, or other disabilities is proving to be a considerable challenge.

It seems that the problem lies with manufacturers waiting for a finished, mainstream product which can then be adapted – rather than prioritising accessibility and incorporating it into the initial design. Which leaves many frustrated potential customers with disabilities wondering whether the budding promise of AVs will ever bear fruit.

As any of us are likely to suffer some form of temporary or permanent disability at some point in our lives, the more people will benefit if AVs are simply designed to be accessible from the start.

Volkswagen’s Inclusive Mobility team is working on how an autonomous vehicle could communicate with users who are hearing impaired by developing a software interface with an accessible screen reader and on interior concepts with tactile, visual and text notifications, plus external vehicle speakers and microphones to assist locating and boarding for users with have low vision.

VW is also investigating ideas such as inward-facing seats for easier face-to-face communication among passengers whilst considering the problem that this positioning can also cause motion sickness.

Interestingly, there is no universal standard for how wheelchairs are secured in vehicles across the industry, and many current assistive solutions were developed well before autonomous vehicles were anything other than a futuristic dream.

Besides the safety of passengers, safety of pedestrians is also key so technology making sure that the geographical diversity of the areas in which the AV is operating is properly managed through detailed and current maps, as well as the AV’s ability to recognise the diversity of people’s body shapes and sizes, or whether they are wheelchair users, is crucial.

If the process has started moving in the right direct to incorporate accessibility, then autonomous technology should bring significant improvements in inclusivity for people with disabilities.

Currently however, a wheelchair accessible vehicle which has been converted for a client’s particular needs by a reputable provider remains the best way for customers to find what they are looking for.