The next stop: accessible mobility for all

By | 4 minute read | May 14, 2018

Olli, an AI-enabled, electric shuttle bus created by Local Motors

An estimated 15 percent of the world’s population has some form of disability. Can AI, IoT, and other autonomous vehicles technology help address their mobility needs?

Yes, through Olli, an AI-enabled, electric shuttle bus created by Local Motors. The #AccessibleOlli initiative, led jointly by Local Motors, IBM, and the CTA Foundation, is piloting technologies that could help riders—including the aging population—with a range of disabilities.

We talked with Gina O’Connell, Director of Labs at Local Motors, and Kal Gyimesi, Automotive Marketing Leader at IBM Watson IoT, to learn more about #AccessibleOlli.

What mobility challenges do people with disabilities face?

O’Connell:  The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2016 was twice that of those with no disability. It’s not because they can’t work; it’s often because they don’t have a means to get to work.

A lot of people with disabilities live below the poverty level. A lack of transportation plays a big role in preventing them from reaching their full potential: working, having a full quality of life, being active in their community.

Gyimesi: People are conscious of their disabilities. Fear of hostility, for example, has stopped one in three people from leaving their homes to go out in their local areas.

And the disability community is underserved when it comes to transportation. Their needs are usually an afterthought when companies design products or vehicles.

How does #AccessibleOlli help people with disabilities?

Gyimesi: We applied technology to Olli in a subtle way that both assists and elevates people with disabilities—enhancing their mobility and confidence.

We designed the accessibility journey around four personas, each with distinct needs:

  1. Erich has degenerative vision loss and is nearly blind. Olli could use machine vision to identify open spots and guide him there via audio cues and a mobile app—or even haptic sensors that project sensations through the air.
  2. Brent has hearing loss. Buses could employ machine vision and augmented reality to read and speak sign language via onboard screens or his smartphone.
  3. Katherine is confined to a wheelchair. Olli will have a smart retractable wheelchair ramp and securement system to be able to help her.
  4. Grace has a cognitive disorder and is suffering from early dementia. Technologies will give her gentle reminders to help keep her on track

How would Olli recognize people with disabilities?

O’Connell: Through two ways: information sharing and technologies like IoT and AI.

Machine vision could detect visual cues that someone needs assistance—like people with wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or guide dogs waiting at bus stops.

Whatever information they share about their needs will make Olli smarter about helping them. Olli can recognize frequent riders: “Erich is getting on the bus. We know what he needs so he doesn’t have to ask for help each time.”

Olli would continue to learn more about people and personalize their experience each time they ride through AI.


#AccessibleOlli recognizes a range of people with disabilities

Can accessible technologies benefit everyone?
O’Connell: The entire global population can use accessible technologies in some way, just like wheelchair cut‑outs in sidewalks. They were originally designed for people with disabilities, but now we all use them.

We want everyone to benefit from Olli’s technologies. We’re not creating a paratransit vehicle and then a vehicle for everyone else. It’s all one vehicle. Technologies that help people with disabilities will make their way on to Olli, so everyone can use them.

Gyimesi: For the aging population who are unable to drive, the transportation options can be limited or inconvenient. By improving mobility for everyone, self-driving vehicles could help older adults reconnect to others and strengthen cherished social relationships.

Autonomous transportation can make a real difference. A self-driving car removes the driver from the equation and should work for everyone, including the almost 50 percent of adults over the age of 65 who have vision, hearing, mobility, or cognitive impairments.

Were there any surprising responses to Olli?
O’Connell: The aging community was not fearful of autonomous driving. They simply wanted independence and mobility. We thought we’d get pushback, but instead we got applause and questions about when it would be available.

There were questions about not having a bus driver to help during a medical episode or if a person is committing a crime. Through machine vision and audible cues, Olli would potentially be able to anticipate trouble before a bus driver and quickly call for help. Olli could even drive to a hospital or police station or meet in the middle.


Stevie Wonder and Lighthouse for the Blind CEO, Michael May, take a seat at #AccessibleOlli during #CES2018

What are your future plans?
Gyimesi: IBM has a long history of inventing technology that is more human, empathetic, and adaptive to everyone’s age and ability. We hired our first person with disabilities in 1914 and have a dedicated IBM Accessibility Research group. We’ll continue to advance the role technology plays in helping the aging population and people with disabilities.

O’Connell: We will continue to explore technology that makes Olli as accessible as possible for everyone. A lack of accessibility is a problem that we want to help solve. Work with us, tell us when we’re going in the right or wrong direction. We’ll listen to you. It’s all too rare that people with disabilities are heard and that design is truly inclusive. We want to change that.