Two College of Engineering professors were among a short list of teams who cleared the first hurdle in a multi-stage contest aimed at improving transportation access to persons with disabilities and individuals with mobility challenges.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2020 created the $5 million Inclusive Design Challenge (IDC), which focuses on innovative design solutions to enable people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities to use automated vehicles (AV) to access jobs, health care and other critical destinations.
Brad Duerstock, associate professor of practice in industrial engineering and biomedical engineering, and Brandon Pitts, assistant professor of industrial engineering, were awarded $300,000. They will have 18 months to develop their proposed ideas into prototypes.
The team commends the DOT’s foresight in acknowledging that autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation.
“People with disabilities who have difficulty with everyday transportation needs can be major stakeholders in this emerging technology,” Duerstock said. “However, for autonomous transportation to be completely inclusive for all types of passengers, accessible design must be considered in how people with disabilities enter and interact with the AV.”
Their goal is to develop the Efficient, Accessible and Safe Interaction in a Real Integrated Design Environment for Riders with disabilities (EASI RIDER). Stage II of the competition involves demonstrating how their design works and helps passengers with disabilities. They plan to use the prize money to develop a realistic demonstration that will allow people to physically interact with a life-sized representation of their accessible Automated Driving System-Dedicated Vehicle (ADS-DV).
Efficient, Accessible and Safe Interaction in a Real Integrated Design Environment for Riders with disabilities
“The platform will consist of an ADS-DV ramp design, an automatically deploying ‘Smart Ramp’, an automated wheelchair securement system, and an on-board user-interface that will provide accessibility features that cater to people with a wide range of disabilities,” Pitts explained.
The two have been interested in this technology for a while now. Duerstock was fortunate to have had prior research collaboration with BraunAbility, a global leader in performing vehicle conversions for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and developing wheelchair lifts and ramps.
“What BraunAbility brings to the table is a way to ensure that wheelchair users can enter the vehicle and be secured without requiring assistance,” Duerstock said.
“BraunAbility is very excited to be a part of the team led by Brad Duerstock and Brandon Pitts for the DoT Inclusive Design Challenge. We have worked with Professor Duerstock on several projects over the last five to seven years and know him to be an expert in the field of accessibility for individuals with disabilities,” said Phillip Bell, senior director of Global Corporate Strategy for BraunAbility. “We are looking forward to helping influence the design of future autonomous vehicles to maximize their usefulness for wheelchair users, and in turn help them live full, productive lives.”
To further develop a base of industry partners, BraunAbility put Duerstock and Pitts in contact with Local Motors and Schaeffler, companies also considered industry leaders in the area of accessible and autonomous transportation. Prehensile Technologies, a startup founded at Purdue based on developing assistive technology solutions, will also assist in various types of vehicle modifications.
Schaeffler manufactures high-precision components and systems for drive train and chassis applications as well as products across the full bandwidth of electrification options. With its partner Schaeffler Paravan, the company will provide its patented “Space Drive” technology for the design challenge to allow accessible control of secondary functions like ramp deployment, lighting control and temperature control.
“Since Schaeffler is in the mobility space, and Space Drive was founded to solve mobility challenges for people with disabilities, this engagement with Purdue only made sense for us,” said Noel Marshall, senior account executive with Schaeffler.
In addition, Purdue has a research alliance with Ford Motor Company, and one of its experts in human factors and accessibility provided guidance regarding autonomous transportation, “an area that Ford also has been interested in pursuing,” Duerstock said.
John Shutko, technical leader for human factors within the Ford AV LLC, voiced his enthusiasm for the project.
“I have been leading the effort within the Ford AV LLC to make our future AVs accessible to those with different disabilities. Along this journey, I became familiar with the team from Purdue due to their expertise in the area of universal design. When they reached out to me regarding their DoT Inclusive Design Challenge proposal, I was very excited and agreed to help out. I look forward to learning from the team and helping out with my knowledge of AVs and human factors.”
Duerstock and Pitts were among 10 semifinalists selected from 47 eligible applications from industry, academic institutions, and individuals representing 21 states. Pitts said being chosen along with contenders such as AbleLink and Waymo, prominent leaders in the field, is a gratifying feeling.
Duerstock concurred. “It feels great to get the validation, to know that our design is considered important by those who are invested in making AVs accessible to people with disabilities a reality.”