By May Mobility
Our goal as an autonomous vehicle (AV) service provider is to make transit more accessible and equitable. So when we design and engineer our AVs, we take steps to accommodate the needs of as many riders as possible.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 27 percent of adults in the U.S. live with some type of disability. That equates to around 77 million Americans. Of these, 12.1 percent have a serious mobility issue, with 6.1 percent deaf or hard of hearing and 4.8 percent with a disability related to vision. The U.S. Department of Transportation further reports that people with disabilities are less likely to own or have access to vehicles than people without disabilities. They found that 22.5 percent of non workers and 12.2 percent of workers with disabilities live in zero vehicle households.
Without accessible transportation options that take disabilities into account, people with disabilities can be limited by their environment. But on-demand AV microtransit empowers people by offering a convenient and accessible solution that meets their individual needs and schedules. Transit agencies that prioritize this kind of innovative service can allow people with disabilities to enjoy much greater freedom, independence and control.
How does autonomous on-demand microtransit benefit people with disabilities?
Many people with disabilities need to schedule their days around the limited transportation options available to them. Often, this must be done days in advance to ensure they can travel and return safely and with confidence. The obligation to micromanage travel arrangements can be very frustrating and sometimes makes it impossible to access employment, grocery shopping, medical care or entertainment.
We’re designing on-demand autonomous vehicles that bridge the transportation gap to help dismantle these obstacles to everyday life. Our AV deployments aim to provide easy and reliable access to vital services and leisure activities that may otherwise be hard to reach. Transit agencies should prioritize adapting their services to better accommodate people with varying abilities, to ensure equal access for everyone.
Designing for disabilities
By collaborating with a leading manufacturer of accessible transportation and mobility solutions, we’ve modified our Toyota Sienna Autono-Maas vehicles to include an ADA-compliant boarding ramp. They can also accommodate two ambulatory riders or a service animal, and are attended by a friendly autonomous vehicle operator (AVO) who assists with entering and exiting. We strive to give wheelchair users greater agency in travel with the same level of safety as other passengers.
But we don’t just design our AVs to empower those with mobility issues. We are also working on incorporating speakers and a display to provide important information to riders, especially helpful to those with audio or visual impairments. In the meantime, our AVOs are happy to answer questions and, if requested, will announce when the vehicle is approaching its destination for added support.
Grand Rapids, Minnesota deployment: Accessible autonomous transportation in action
We’ve deployed our AVs in 11 communities across the U.S. and Japan, giving over 320,000 rides. Of these, our deployment in Grand Rapids, Minnesota has been particularly well received by its wheelchair users. The program launched in 2022 to compensate for transportation gaps and increase equity and accessibility in a rural community. The deployment consists of five AVs, three of which are wheelchair-accessible.
Among our many partners is the non-profit accessibility movement Mobility Mania, whose goal is to make Itasca County the most accessible county in Minnesota. The organization’s co-founder and well-known advocate for handicapped-accessible transportation, Myrna Peterson, quickly became a regular rider. When asked about the impact our AVs are having on her community, she told us:
May Mobility has made a huge difference in our community for those people who aren’t as mobile. It gives them the opportunity to get accessible transportation to events in the evening and on weekends, to church on Sunday, to a concert, to one of their grandchildren’s sporting events or just out leisurely to have dinner with friends or family. I want people to enjoy a better quality of life than having to stay home because they can’t get there.
Our Grand Rapids deployment has been an incredible triumph for AV technology and even featured in the new BBC series Technology’s Golden Age