Autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform the way we get around. But does that include everyone?

One group of people that could greatly benefit from this revolution are those with disabilities, yet it’s an area that hasn’t received much attention.

That’s the mission of Pitt’s new Tier 1 University Transportation Center. The U.S. Department of Transportation just awarded $1 million to the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh, for a study of how automated vehicles can help people with disabilities.

“Autonomous vehicles and transportation systems have a very bright future,” says Rory Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “Except we want to make sure that our people with disabilities and various impairments are part of this future. And that this becomes a technology that promotes inclusion and not exclusion.”

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories has a wealth of experience in large, cross-disciplinary projects like this. The team includes engineers, statisticians, healthcare providers and people with disabilities.

“Normally, what we do is create technologies for veterans and people with disabilities that don’t currently exist, that they need,” says Cooper. “That can be from wheelchairs to robotic systems to the evaluation of emerging technologies like home automation.”

Automated vehicles have the potential to help lots of people, who for many reasons, can’t drive. The job of this Tier 1 Transportation Center is to figure out how.

“The primary challenge is when you do not have a person available to provide assistance should it be needed,” explains Cooper. “If you need to load your wheelchair in the car, how do you make that happen? If you’re visually impaired, how do you locate the vehicle? Or hearing impaired, how do you communicate with the vehicle and tell it where it needs to go?”

The answers will affect how millions of Americans will travel. That includes millions more who are getting older and finding that age-related impairments make it more difficult to drive.

“Transportation is a huge barrier to accessing healthcare, achieving gainful employment and participating in civic society,” says Cooper. “Ideally, it will provide on-demand transportation for everybody, in an affordable and safe manner. You can imagine what it would be like if you were unable to drive because of some physical, cognitive or sensory impairment — and now you can get this vehicle to go where you want it to go. That’s going to be tremendously empowering and liberating.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is funding four new Tier 1 University Transportation Centers, including projects at Pitt, Ohio State University, Northwestern and Georgia Tech.

“We’re very excited to bring the first University Transportation Center to the University of Pittsburgh, and the second one to Pittsburgh,” says Cooper. “There’s one at Carnegie Mellon as well. It’s pretty exciting for a city of our size to have two centers.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...