Driverless cars

The idea of driverless cars has always been a thing of the future. They have been confined to the realms of science fiction, rather than something that one could imagine driving about on our roads in the near future. However, what many don’t realise is that the technology to take this from the realm of fiction to reality is already here; it has just been a case of putting together the various components.

In the past few years people from all areas of business have been talking more seriously about the idea of self-driving cars. The primary push for automated cars has centred around two main improvements to travel a) the idea that removing human error will make the roads safer, and b) the impact driverless cars would have on the disabled and elderly in increasing their independence.

Most countries have laws meaning that public transport has to have provisions for the disabled to make it accessible. This means that they must have seats which are allotted with extra room for disabled passengers, and spaces for wheelchairs to be secured so that users can travel comfortably, as well as available assistance to help them get on to the bus or train. The problem is accessing these provisions. Not only are people reliant on the timetables of public transport but they also have to bank on the fact that people will move to allow them access to spaces, or even that they will be able to get to the platform at all. It’s all well and good having disabled seating but passengers won’t be able to use it if the platform or station is not accessible. The other option until now has been booking private transport that you know in advance will be accessible, such as an accessible taxi or bus. However this can cost up to four times as much as a regular taxi, which are very seldom accessible.

It is increasingly being proposed that automated vehicles may provide a solution. Texas A&M university has been developing and testing driverless vehicles that they hope could provide a service similar to an accessible UBER. The different pieces of technology needed to make it possible already exist, it has just been a case of putting these various pieces of technology together. The idea proposed is that users would be able to download a mobile application and create a profile. On this they would be able to upload information about any disabilities and their accessibility requirements, such as space for a wheelchair or extra room for a service dog. When the shuttle arrives it would scan the area using a combination of lasers, cameras and radar technology to create a 3D map of the area. It would establish the most accessible place to park and if needs be it could send a map to the person informing them of the easiest route to take to get to it, avoiding obstacles such as dustbins and curb-sides. Photos uploaded to the user’s profile would enable the vehicle to use facial recognition to make sure that it is picking up the correct passenger.

The lack of need for a driver means that in the future the interior of a car can be redesigned so that it is more accessible and space is being utilised in a more complete way. This would mean that people with mobility needs such as using a wheelchair etc wouldn’t have to worry about transferring themselves from chair to car, and then having to fold away the chair in order to get it into the car. But the question is, are the current designs being floated really pushing the boundaries, or are they sticking rather close to the ‘classic’ interior design of the cars we already know?

Over the past few years more and more well-known car companies have been releasing driverless concept cars. Most of these concept car designs are simply a futuristic redesigning of what we are already familiar with. Yes there may be the addition of a TV screen or a coffee table with four seats facing each other, but they mostly remain as inaccessible as before. One would still need to retrofit a ramp and potentially remove a seat or two to make it wheelchair friendly. It would appear little thinking has gone into revolutionising the space that is freed up by the removal of the drivers cabin, dashboard and peddles etc.

Some of the more impressive designs have been presented by Volkswagen and Toyota. The traditional VW is still recognisable by it’s shape but it’s interior, which is set out in  a similar fashion to the London black cabs, has seats facing each other, some of which are folding seats which makes the space more versatile.

It is Toyota that has released details for the most revolutionary of concept cars. The concept released by Toyota essentially resembles more of a pod than a traditional car. The e-Palette concept Vehicle is designed not as a traditional car but to meet the demands of a future multi-mode transportation service. It is a fully automated, next generation battery electric vehicle that has been designed for optimal flexibility in use. The entire interior of the vehicle, in all three sizes that it will come in, is an open design that can be outfitted to meet the users needs. It essentially presents the user with a completely open framework to play with. The low floor and open space of the vehicle would include an automated ramp that can extend to allow passengers in wheelchairs or with other mobility restrictions to enter the vehicle with ease, and fit the interior with whatever requirements they desire.

Though all of these ideas and concepts are on the horizon, we have not quite managed to reach them yet. Driverless cars are being tested however as manufacturers try to work out the glitches to ensure optimal safety on the roads. It is no great leap to think that in the next few years we might see the first fully driverless cars hitting our roads; the only questions that remains is who are they being designed for?