virtual assistance for public transit (FWHA/YouTube)

Automation to help the disabled navigate transit

Developments in automation and connectivity within the transportation industry could result in a travel and commuting ecosystem that’s very different from what we see today, transportation experts said at a Sept. 26 Washington, D.C. event..

“Automation is the most important development to transportation since the internal combustion engine,” said Vincent Valdes, the associate administrator of research, demonstration and innovation at the Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration.

Diana Mendes, the mid-Atlantic division president and transit and rail practice leader at HNTB Corp., said the use of cars overtook that of horses in 13 years at the beginning of the last century. The integration of automated and autonomous cars into our transit systems could happen just as quickly, she predicted.

Valdes described a hypothetical future scenario for the audience at the "City of the Future" event at the National Press Club. In 2042, a handicapped individual uses a smart device to order an autonomous car to get to an autonomous bus stop. The car alerts the passenger that a neighbor also needs a ride and stops to pick him up. After dropping off its passengers at the transit stop, the car enters an autonomous leasing pool from which it can be sent to drive people around and make money for the owner.

These innovations in autonomy could mean the role of transit agencies will shift in coming years from handling buses and rail infrastructure to managing entire mobility networks, Mendes said.

It will also require automation on the back end and virtual assistance to help travelers, something DOT is already working on, Valdes said.

The Accessible Transportation Technologies Research Initiative (ATTRI) -- a partnership between DOT, research institutions like Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech and private businesses like Intel, IBM and Toyota – aims "to figure out technologies that can assist people with disabilities, aging Americans, and develop, perhaps, concierge services, wayfinding, all of these assistive technologies that will go along with the idea of automation and connected vehicles,” Valdes told GCN.

An ATTRI report released by Carnegie Mellon researchers earlier this year examined the current state of technologies that could be used to advance accessible transportation.

The growth in navigation applications, highly automated personal vehicles, open data policies, web-based mapping tools, integrated payment systems, coordinated ridesharing and other advancements can play an important role in helping people with disabilities get around.

But wayfinding apps must improve so they work underground, cars must be more accessible to people with disabilities, more data must be made available from transit agencies, and a number of improvements must be made in first- and last-mile infrastructure to accessible transportation a reality, the report said.

A DOT video demonstrating the potential of accessible transit technologies shows a man in a wheelchair using an Apple watch in the Washington subway to ask a virtual assistant for help. It describes “virtual caregivers” that help with route planning and autonomous cars that provide support with chores like shopping.

“I don’t know if this scenario will play out,” Valdes said after describing his vision for 2042, “but I think with the technologies that are being investigated nowadays, and certainly a very careful and thoughtful deployment of these technologies, we can see this future coming.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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