How inventing became a passion: Developing autonomous vehicles to help support healthy aging and people with disabilities

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For more than 10 years, I have focused my research on creating accessible technology for people with disabilities. This led to my current research in designing solutions for the aging population whose cognitive and functional ability change over time.

Susann Keohane, Global Research Leader, Strategic Initiative on Aging, Master Inventor, Academy of Technology Member, IBM Research

Susann Keohane, Global Research Leader, Strategic Initiative on Aging, Master Inventor, Academy of Technology Member, IBM Research

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the USPTO’s press event at SXSW, where they unveiled the new U.S. patent design. It was an honor to represent IBM and made me think about my career and the patents I have been granted over the years for my inventions in areas including accessibility, transportation, security and device communication. My first patent grant for IBM came in 2004 and over a hundred patents later I am still motivated to think creatively, collaborate with colleagues and imagine the future of accessible tech.

As we age, we tend to lose the ability to retain our independence – in our homes and on the road. Autonomous vehicles can play an important role in helping the elderly stay more connected with friends, family and their community, and remain self-sufficient for as long as possible. Working as the lead of IBM Research’s Strategic Initiative on Aging and being an IBM Master Inventor, my team and I think about how to best design autonomous vehicles through an accessibility lens. We are currently evaluating the related challenges and opportunities through our AccessibleOlli project with Local Motors and the Computer Technology Association Foundation, to help create the world’s most accessible, self-driving vehicle.

We also recently patented a system for cognitive-state supported automotive travel. This has the potential of opening the aperture of car ownership to people with disabilities (e.g., vision impairments) or seniors who may have had to turn in their keys due to their safety and others.

We also want to help make autonomous vehicles easier to use and maintain. This led us to patent an invention on “Autonomously servicing self-driving vehicles.”

Accessible autonomous vehicles

The patented technology is a method that autonomously guides a self-driving vehicle (SDV) to a service facility.

An equipment maintenance sensor detects whether the SDV needs maintenance. The processor identifies if a mechanic is required and, if so, also a service facility capable of providing the maintenance service. It will then determine other important factors:

  • Amount of time required for the SDV to travel to and from a current location to the service facility and receive the necessary maintenance service.
  • Estimated time for repair including driving time to/from the service station.
  • A time window in which a user of the SDV will not need the SDV, and then direct the SDV to autonomously drive to the service facility during that time.
  • Receives confirmation with the driver and books an appointment with the mechanic.
  • At the appropriate time before the appointment, the system provides the route to the car to drive directly to the station.
  • During the maintenance, the driver is alerted as to the progress and if the work is on schedule.
  • Once the repair is complete, the system routes the car to the driver or to the destination of the driver’s request.
  • If there is a repair delay, the system can rent another self-driving vehicle and send it to the driver’s location.

We need to continue to look for ways to help make technology more accessible and improve the overall user experience – both for those with and without disabilities. IBM Research is dedicated to this and believes we can help develop autonomous vehicles that can allow people to be more self-sufficient and connected.

Let’s continue to challenge and think through best practices for the future of transportation and accessibility. Our team is open to discussing these challenges with the industry and how we can leverage our patented technology to enable services for consumers in today’s longevity economy.

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