Autonomous vehicles, independence and universal design

Three children stand in front of a small driverless bus.New cars have automated features, but they are not yet driverless, that is, driven by computers. The mining and agriculture industries already use fully autonomous vehicles. So we have the technology. Driverless cars will be about passengers – all passengers. However, we need to solve roadway issues before this technology can be rolled out for everyday use. As we glimpse a future where anyone can utilise a car, we need to make sure the designs work for everyone. Autonomous vehicles (AV) can bring independence with universal design. 

The Australian and New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) has produced a short paper explaining the key issues and recommendations. It covers:

      • Existing Barriers to Transportation
      • Benefits of AV Transportation
      • Increased Economic Opportunities
      • Limitations and Concerns of Autonomous Vehicles
      • Gap Analysis for People with A Disability Table
      • Pilots of Autonomous Vehicles with Aging Communities

The title of the paper is, The road to independence: Inclusive design of autonomous vehicles. The scope of transport solutions includes private, shared, business and public transport options.


1. As part of a Roadmap for autonomous vehicles, Australian governments and other stakeholders should ensure that the development of autonomous vehicle technologies consider the needs of the disabled.
Program Pilots
2. Governments at all levels should prioritise facilitating autonomous vehicle pilots for the disabled, including those integrating other allied and emerging technologies.
3. Australian testing facilities / proving grounds for autonomous vehicles should include testing of technologies to assist the disabled with regards to autonomous vehicles.
4. By successfully adopting the concept of universal design through co-design, it is forecast that there could be a growth in the vehicle market of up to 17% if all people living with a disability could access private transportation.


In order to ensure that needs of the people with a disability are understood and technology solutions are developed to address these needs, planning, research and pilot programs need to be undertaken, otherwise the advent of AVs could create new obstacles for people with a disability.

Achieving genuine accessibility for the disabled may require the integration of AVs with other emerging technologies, to enable AVs to understand spoken instructions, observe nearby surroundings and communicate with people.

Whether this eventuates however, will largely depend on how early and to what extent key stakeholders such as vehicle manufacturers, autonomous driving systems developers, infrastructure owners and planning guidelines adopt inclusive design processes and work together to provide design solutions that optimize the end-to-end user journey.

This paper explores how Universal Design of AVs should be considered in Australia, including the benefits it will deliver to society, the economic opportunities that it creates for not only industry but for those living with a disability, and the pathway to achieving this. Universal design provides a process for creating an inclusive society and is similar to other approaches such as inclusive design, human-centred design and design for diversity. Co-design is another important aspect, where designs are created with people with disabilities to ensure that designs are usable and appropriately meet user needs.

The scope of transport solutions covered by this paper includes private, shared, business and public transport options.

On the road with autonomous vehicles

A yellow autonomous vehicle on the road. It is box shaped with large windows and small wheels.What will the future of transport look like post COVID-19 pandemic and what will it mean for autonomous vehicles? For people who don’t or can’t drive, autonomous vehicles seem a wonderful invention. But will the designs and technology be inclusive?  

It’s not that no-one is thinking about access and inclusion – they are. But it’s not all about the technology. Some of the problems are related to the way vehicles connect with the built environment. Wheelchair accessible features, such as a ramp, can be rendered unsafe on steep inclines. If the wheelchair is not locked down, bumps in the road could cause the chair to tip or fall. 

Some riders will need specific assistive technologies for eye tracking, gesture recognition, and voice control. These would give people with tactile, mobility, and hearing impairments a sense of control without the need to make physical contact. Other practical challenges are around pick up and drop-off, and loading and unloading groceries. Human assistance will still be needed at certain points of the journey for some people. 

These issues and others are discussed in an article, Autonomous vehicles should benefit those with disabilities, but progress remains slow.

Related articles

For a more academic study and design details see, Accessible Personal Transportation for People with Disabilities Using Autonomous Vehicles. They include the principles of universal design in the text and conclude with a list of recommendations. 

The motoring body, NRMA, predicted in 2017 that autonomous vehicles will be rolling out in significant numbers by 2020. Their report on the Future of Car Ownership shows the step by step progress. You can also get a summary of the report in an infographic

UTT: A Conceptual Model to Guide the Universal Design of Autonomous Vehicles requires institutional access for a free read.

Abstract:  Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are closer to becoming a reality in changing the landscape of commercial and personal transportation. The launch of these vehicles come with the promise of improved road safety, reduced traffic fatalities, and enhanced mobility. However, there are questions as to whether the design of AVs will meet the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities and older adults. We argue that there exists no conceptual model that guides the inclusive design of autonomous vehicles to benefit all intended users. This paper proposes such a model, called the User Transportation-Activity Technology (UTT) model, which supports the inclusive design of AVs. We present a review of current models of assistive technology design and their drawbacks followed by an introduction of the UTT model and its application in AV design. This paper may benefit researchers, designers, and developers of autonomous vehicles interested in addressing accessible design issues in such vehicles.


Older people like self driving vehicles

Graphic from the paper showing the elements people would think about when planning a journey with an autonomous vehicle.A series of workshops with older people in UK revealed they are likely to welcome autonomous vehicles. The workshops also gave participants time to think about some of the implications, both negative and positive.  Accessibility was a key factor. Declining vision and hearing, as well as dexterity issues such as arthritis, were mentioned in relation to touch screens. Being able to stop for a toilet, room for a pet and for shopping or luggage, and where to leave the vehicle at the end of the trip were factors that designers need to consider. There’s good information about older people and their reasons for travel, and how autonomous vehicles might enhance their ability to get out and about and socialise.

The title of the paper is, Finding from Workshops held with Older People considering participating in Connected Autonomous Vehicle trials. It also contains information about the five levels of autonomy of vehicles. The workshops are part of a larger project, Flourish, a multi-sector collaboration.

See also Lifelong Mobility with Automation. 

Editor’s note: Too many people are thinking about drivers and self-driving vehicles when in fact, fully automated vehicles are self-passenger-ing. That is, no-one is driving, so everyone is a passenger. 

The graphic from the article shows factors older people thought about when making a journey: toilets, luggage space, route choice, refuelling, journey time, leaving vehicle at destination, and road conditions.

Look at me!

An orange automated vehicle has eyes that appear to be looking at a pedestrianWorried that a driverless car won’t see or detect you? With a driver you can check to see if they are looking your way, but if there is no driver, that can be a worry. Autonomous vehicles are posing many problems for designers who are grappling with most of them quite successfully. So for this problem Jaguar has come up with a car with googly eyes. The “eyes” don’t “see” you, but it can give confidence that you have been detected because the eyes follow you as you cross the pedestrian crossing. I should think that once we get used to automated vehicles, eventually eyes will be phased out. At the 2018 UD Conference Amy Child from Arup gave an entertaining presentation on this topic and other aspects of the move to driverless cars, including the googly eyes. The transcript of Amy’s keynote presentation can be downloaded in Word. 

Artificial Intelligence and UD

Internal view of a driverless car showing seats facing both back and forward.Artificial Intelligence and Universal Design are looking like natural partners in the development of new technology. In a recent article, “Tackling Autonomous Driving Challenges – How the Design of Autonomous Vehicles Is Mirroring Universal Design” the authors argue that the applying  the seven principles of universal design to the design autonomous vehicles is becoming more evident as the designs advance. You will need institutional access for a free read of this SpringerLink book chapter. Or you can try Google Books for some of the content.

Abstract: In the future, the world will be characterized by highly densely populations, with growing share of mobility-impaired/disabled persons, a critical problem regarding the sustainability of the metropolises, whose resolution may reside in autonomous vehicles. A broader range of users will be allowed a, so far, denied mobility in level 4 and level 5 SAE autonomous vehicles, a goal to be accomplished through Universal Design, a design which intends to be the closest possible to the ideal design. For such purpose, Human Factors and Ergonomics are key. Literature review and research have shown that there is evidence of application of the seven Universal Design principles in these new autonomous vehicles and that, given the nature and purpose of the Universal Design, with the increase of autonomy, there is natural increased evidence of Universal Design. A novel model for interaction of the Universal Design influencers is proposed.