LivAbility Magazine

Edition 15 | Winter 2019

A visitor in a power wheelchair tries out the Accessible Olli prototype by Local Motors at their booth during the 2018 CES expo in Las Vegas.

People with Disabilities May Some Day Get to Enjoy All the Perks of Autonomous Vehicles

Story by Keegan Kelly
Photos provided by Local Motors

Phoenix has become America’s hotspot for testing autonomous vehicles; driverless cars are a common sight for daily commuters in the Valley. In October, Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order creating the Institute for Automated Mobility, a consortium between companies, universities and public officials to collaborate on autonomous vehicle research.

As progress to a more autonomous roadway continues, it has many in the disability community wondering when they will be able to take advantage of the advancements.

Marcos Castillo, a 35-year-old quadriplegic, lives in Chandler, far from where the Valley’s light rail stretches. Castillo was diagnosed last year with a rare autoimmune disease known as CIPD (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy).

He believes autonomous vehicles could be extremely beneficial for people with mobility issues. Castillo says he goes through a lot of “hurry up and wait” when using public transportation such as the light rail.

“The biggest challenge is being dropped off and picked up in a timely manner,” said Marcos Castillo. “It makes it hard to be looked at as professional when you always have to make these excuses.”

Right now, Castillo uses his chair and public transportation to get around. He has a vehicle as a last resort, but it is only passenger accessible, meaning Castillo would need someone to drive the car.

Stevie Wonder sits on the Accessible Olli. Wonder is wearing large dark sunglasses, a black pullover and black jeans. The image also shows his service animal, a fully-grown Labrador Retriever resting head on Wonder's right knee.
Photo by Local Motors.

Some companies working with autonomous vehicles are trying to expand their services into the disability community to help people like Castillo get up and go in a more timely manner.

“Accessibility is something we care deeply about,” said Haley Morris of Waymo Public Affairs. Waymo is also one of the most frequently-seen autonomous vehicles around the Valley.

Waymo is reaching out to riders, who have disabilities that limit their mobility in different ways. Recently, Waymo partnered with the Foundation for Blind Children and conducted a study in Phoenix this past November to test features such as braille labels and audio cues that could improve ride quality for blind and visually-impaired riders.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide a flexible transportation option for those who need it,” said Morris.

Morris said Waymo is also developing a series of programs to make Waymo more accessible, like a convenient mobile application, a visual display and available rider support.

Local Motors, a Tempe-based organization, is taking an entirely new angle on autonomous cars.

Local Motors began as a custom car company in 2007, creating cars like ‘The Rally Fighter’ which appeared in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Enter Accessible Olli.

According to Local Motors, the Accessible Olli is the world’s first cognitive, self-driving vehicle. Its sleek, cubic and tall design intentionally appears as if it belongs in 2030.

“Olli is an autonomous first-and-last-mile vehicle,” Local Motors Executive Vice President Matthew Rivet said. Accessible Olli acts as a shuttle to get riders to and from primary transportation methods, such as airports and light rail stops.

“Everywhere there are these big, large-scale efforts to move people from one place to another. The reality is some people can’t get to those areas.”

Castillo said a program like this could do wonders for the disability community, “Having reliable transportation like that would open up doors and roads for people with mobility issues.”

The Accessible Olli at a convention in Las Vegas. The Accessible Olli sits with the ramp out.
Photo by Local Motors.

In creating Accessible Olli, Local Motors has had to figure out how to provide the same accessibility as current public transportation without having a driver on board to assist.

“We need to have a vision of what is feasible now and in the future,” Vice President of Product Management, Jeff Haye said.

The Accessible Olli program currently has many products in development, many of which were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

It is yet to be determined when Accessible Olli’s features will be on the road, but Haye said Local Motors plans on testing the accessibility features on pre-commercialized vehicles as soon as next year. In the meantime, Local Motors plans on having manual ramps at stations to assist in accessibility.”

Keegan Kelly

Keegan Kelly

Keegan Kelly is from Rochester, NY and is currently a student at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University studying journalism and political science. Keegan makes videos and writes articles for Ability360. Outside of Ability360, Keegan enjoys music, fashion and being let down by the Buffalo Bills.

Read more by Keegan Kelly.