Waymo is introducing a series of new features designed to make its fleet of autonomous taxis more accessible to passengers with visual impairments and other disabilities.
The new features are sure to grab attention when they hit the streets. They include displaying the rider’s initials on the roof dome as a visual way to identify their assigned vehicle from near to medium range. The display shows the user’s customizable “Car ID” which consists of two colored letters that can be configured via the Waymo app.
Another feature provides turn-by-turn navigation to guide the rider on the most appropriate path to their waiting robotic axis, using data on sidewalks, zebra crossings and other terrain features to provide the most appropriate route.
Alphabet’s company, which first publicly demonstrated one of its autonomous vehicles in 2015 with a visually impaired man in the driver’s seat back, says the new features were developed as part of Waymo’s participation in the American company’s first-ever Inclusive Design. Department of Transportation. Challenge. And while the company didn’t win the challenge (that honor went to Purdue University), Waymo decided to incorporate the new features into its Waymo One ride-hailing service that currently operates in Arizona and California.
“Winning would have been nice,” said Kevin Malta, a product manager at Waymo who led the development of these features. But “building these features was always the primary goal.”
Another interesting feature is aimed at visually impaired passengers. To make sure they get into the correct vehicle, the Waymo AV will emit a unique melodious chime to help them steer. Malta said working with lawyers from the blind and visually impaired community helped develop a product that would benefit riders, while also taking into account the ill effects of noise pollution and aggressive honking.
“During our testing, a lot of riders loved it,” said Malta. “Not to mention that the car horn can be a bit cacophonous. And so it was euphonious to be able to use this melody instead. Because we didn’t want to increase the noise pollution from traffic.”
The latest feature Waymo will roll out was a car distance compass designed to help riders locate their vehicle in places where GPS may be unreliable. It is intended to complement the turn-by-turn navigation feature, which is not accurate enough to direct riders to a specific well-defined spot and can lose usability as riders get closer to their vehicle.
Autonomous vehicles have long been considered a solution to the many transportation problems faced by people with disabilities. But the absence of a human driver and a string of broken promises from other tech companies promising promising solutions has left some passengers skeptical that AVs can really help improve accessibility in any meaningful way.
The cost and difficulty of deploying wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) is a major obstacle for the AV industry, but Waymo has made some progress there. According to a recent report from the California Public Utilities CommissionWaymo reported that it delivered 11 manual WAV trips in San Francisco over the course of its most recent reporting period. (The rides were completed with conventional vehicles, not Waymo’s autonomous vehicles, with rides controlled on the company’s Waymo One app, a spokesperson said.) The company also reported completing 1,518 rides with accessibility features enabled. which the spokesperson said was an indication of “strong adoption.”
Waymo aims to differentiate itself from the tech industry by working directly with disability advocates, including San Francisco’s chapter of Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Malta said. The hope is that by directly involving passengers with disabilities in the design and testing process for new features, the company can help demonstrate that its AVs will help improve transport equality in the long term.
“There may not be a human in the front seat,” he added, “but we haven’t lost the human touch in the experience.”