[Audio] Self-driving cars pave equitable future for mobility-disadvantaged commuters

Technologists tout autonomous vehicles as the future of transportation. More robots taking over the streets of Phoenix may not just solve traffic congestion, but also equity challenges.


Neetish Basnet

12/20/20218 min read


A voice-activated screen reader on Darrell Hilliker’s phone speaks in a synthesized voice. It asks for confirmation of the arriving ride. He replies, “yes.”Ten minutes later, a custom-built white minivan rolls up to his driveway.

No one is behind the wheel. But Hilliker doesn’t need one for this vehicle – part of the wave of driverless technology taking over the Phoenix area streets.

Hilliker is blind. And such a car finally means he has the freedom to come and go as he pleases.

"Transportation is one of the major barriers," Hilliker said of him and his family. (His wife and two children are also visually impaired.) "We live in a car-centered world. People are expected to drive, and we don't."

In the East Valley, a private-public partnership between a tech company and the regional transportation agency has paved the way for more self-driving cars on the road.

According to officials and research data, the use of autonomous vehicle technology, paired with the transit system, is opening new doors to people with disabilities. Experts believe technological advancements benefit accessible transportation by adding more options to the transit system.

However, hurdles remain.

"Automated vehicles potentially can enhance mobility for certain disadvantaged segments of society," said Ram Pendyala, director of ASU School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. "But we (need to) also think about designing automated mobility services and having the right policies in place to make sure that the future goes in a direction that is desirable."

Driving away the problem

Hilliker has had glaucoma since birth. He lost all vision 15 years ago. From hailing traditional taxi cabs, bus and train rides to ordering rides from tech app-based platforms and asking favors from friends and strangers, Hilliker used all options at his disposal to make it to medical appointments as well as recreational and entertainment plans.

He currently works from home. But the accessibility advocate loathes being dependent on another human being.

"It's hard for a blind person to get a job or even walk down the street without somebody thinking, 'Oh, they must be lost or they must be confused or something," said Hilliker, who works as a support engineer for an international software company. "Blindness is equated with ignorance, confusion and incompetence."

When Waymo, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, launched commercial self-driving cars service in Chandler in late 2018, it gave autonomy to commuters like Hilliker. He has been a user ever since.

"I like not having to call somebody to get a ride. I want to push a button," he said. "With services like Waymo, I don't even have to worry about having a driver there. It's just automated."

As the technology becomes more prevalent, commuters and policymakers are gauging the applicability and utility of autonomous vehicles. Valley Metro, the umbrella transit system of the region, ran a pilot program last year that provided self-driving car rides to mobility disadvantaged populations. The program, in partnership with Waymo, integrated Waymo's commercial ride-hailing service into Valley Metro's paratransit service, RideChoice.

Para-transit certified commuters and seniors, aged 65 and above, from cities across Phoenix metro are eligible to register to RideChoice, which charges a subsidized rate to the commuters. The $41-million-a-year para-transit and RideChoice services completed 674,000 total trips in fiscal year 2021, according to Valley Metro’s 2021 budget. RideChoice’s offerings include wheelchair-accessible shuttles and taxi cabs among others services. The ridership grew by 21%, year-over-year, due to “expanding the RideChoice program,” Valley Metro said.

Under the new pilot program, RideChoice commuters could choose to ride Waymo's self-driving cars for a fixed $3 fare. Valley Metro used a Federal Transit Administration grant it received in 2016 to set up the program.

Joe Gregory, manager of geographic and service planning at Valley Metro, said incorporating a new autonomous vehicle service into existing RideChoice did not incur any additional operational cost to the agency.

"We're constantly trying to find ways to help people who don't have access or don't have the ability to ride just a standard transit bus or you get out to a bus stop," Gregory said. "Those people who we are really trying to serve, especially in RideChoice and the ADA community, we really have to find ways to get rides to them and get them to places that they need to go to."

The pilot program started in September 2019 and ended in March 2020. But, advocates say the first-of-its-kind program forged a lasting impact.

Under the autonomous vehicle hood

A group of researchers at Arizona State University took the pilot program as an opportunity to learn more about autonomous technology.They conducted a study and released this summer the findings in a report that showed a wide acceptance of the technology among people with disabilities. The Federal Transit Authority sponsored the study.

The Valley Metro-Waymo pilot provided 1,100 trips, averaging about 5 miles and 10 minutes. According to the ASU study, more than 70% of commuters with disabilities indicated a willingness to ride vehicles without a human operator.Nevertheless, the reliability of the non-sentient vehicles is still under the microscope.

"Issues or hiccups is where an autonomous vehicle always looks for a safe spot in order to stop,” said Pendyala, the ASU professor who headed the study. “And sometimes that pick-up or drop-off spot may not be exactly in front of you because the vehicle may think, 'oh that's not a safe location.'"

Hilliker uses Waymo to get to his appointments at least twice a week. While he hasn’t faced any issues yet, he said, self-driving vehicles have frustrated his wife on multiple occasions because it dropped her off on the opposite side of the road of her intended destination.

The inconvenience is not a deal breaker, though, as the ASU study shows. According to the report, 59% of participants were taking more trips in the RideChoice program since autonomous vehicles were introduced. The report also found 70% of the commuters felt safer riding in autonomous vehicles as compared to traditional ridesharing services.

Luke Tate, managing director of the ASU Office of Applied Innovation, said of access to reliable transportation, "at its foundation, this is an equity issue."

"Autonomous vehicles become the mechanism by which those individuals are able to have or regain control over their own mobility. Autonomous vehicles enable them to determine, with greater agency, how they're going to get from where they are to where they need to go," Tate said. "I think those will be some of the most important ways in which this technology makes life better for all of us."

Pendyala envisions a promising future for mass transit, where "vehicle design will be so friendly" to people with disabilities.

Self-driving cars can potentially eliminate the need for cars to look and function how they've traditionally been designed. For example, e.g., autonomous vehicles in the future may not require windshields or a driver's seat. That could enable easy access to a wheelchair.

"I don't know if every vehicle will have all of the capability and flexibility to accommodate, but I think you will have a fleet of different vehicles that will cater to different needs," Pendyala said. "Depending on the need that somebody specifies, the appropriate vehicle will be dispatched."

Paving the way for self-driving vehicles

Urban planners are aiming for higher capacity transit options and sustainability. autonomous vehicles can deliver both, Gregory said. However, the technology is still in its early stages. And, human drivers are still largely wary of the robot, according to a 2021 survey by AAA and Belfer Center at Harvard University. The survey found 47% of drivers felt less safe sharing the road with self-driving vehicles in major freeways, and 44% felt less safe driving in local and neighborhood roads alongside autonomous vehicles; while, 24% and 26% of drivers surveyed, respectively, were unsure of the technology.

In 2017, a Tesla car on autopilot struck an off-duty police officer on a motorcycle in Phoenix. A year later, an Uber ride in autonomous mode hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe.

Waymo wants to win the race to self-driving supremacy. However, several other companies in the space are focused on advancing present usability and trying to make the technology safer and more reliable as it gradually expands. Uber sold its autonomous vehicle unit to Aurora, a Pennsylvania-based technology startup backed by Amazon, in 2020. Aurora became a publicly-traded company in early November. Lucid Motors is producing its own fleet of autonomous sedans at its 500-acres factory in Casa Grande.

In the U.K., commuters for the first time will be able to can take a seat inside an autonomous vehicle by the end of the year after the Department for Transport gave the green light to self-driving cars.

George Ivanov, Waymo's head of international policy and government affairs, said the company is consistently testing the technology under varying weather conditions, road types and traffic laws. Chandler had a built-in trust for the technology and suitable conditions – flat roads and temperate – climate which made it the perfect testbed for the technology, Ivanov said.

Waymo expanded its commercial ride-hailing service to San Francisco in August. It began mapping New York City this fall and plans to start services in the city soon.While Waymo did not disclose the exact cost, Ivanov said autonomous technology is still an expensive technology that people and cities, in general, might not afford or welcome.

In the next two years, premium carmaker Jaguar will build 20,000 I-PACE SUVs for Waymo. A base model of the electric vehicle, as listed by Jaguar, would cost about $87,000.

The road aheadValley Metro and Waymo are now using the pilot as a case study to replicate similar projects and broaden the partnership and its scope.

"It's not something that we pushed. It really started more organically from an interest in emerging technology," Ivanov said.Initial conversations for a potential partnership between the company, Valley Metro, Greater Phoenix Economic Council and others began in 2016."Now, looking back, absolutely,” Ivanov said, “it was worth the effort."

Steve Mahan, a blind man, became the first person ever to ride a driverless car in a public roadway when he completed a Waymo ride alone in an Austin suburb in October 2015.

Officials are touting the latest pilot, which encompassed rides limited to a 100 square-miles area in the East Valley, as a "success" that opens new doors to new mass transit solutions.

On the heels of the pilot, Waymo began offering driverless ride-hailing service to the public in the Phoenix area in October 2020.

Valley Metro's Gregory believes autonomous vehicles will not be "bus killers" but, rather, will supplement and complement the existing systems.

"All kinds of changes will affect transit. Within the next 10 years, there's supposed to be a million people moving to the Valley. The roads aren't going to get any wider. We're not gonna be able to double-deck the freeways or anything like that," Gregory said. "We're gonna have to still share basically the same place with more people. So we have to find ways to be more efficient."

Waymo currently operates about 400 autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix metro streets with plans to add hundreds more in the coming years, according to the company.

"If you look back at the history of new technologies, whether it's the dawn of electricity or aviation, it required some pioneering to build a public interest before you could build up public trust and build businesses," Ivanov said.

Valley Metro is working on a new request for proposal for another pilot program and further research on autonomous vehicles and accessibility needs.

"I'm really, really excited about the possibility of automating public transit infrastructure. But then again, do we do that, or can we just give up on public transit?" Hilliker said. "And just have fleets of thousands of cars out there, waiting to be given an order to go somewhere?

Technologists tout autonomous vehicles as the future of transportation. More robots taking over the streets of Phoenix may not just solve traffic congestion, but also equity challenges.