Understanding the riding experience of people with disabilities in an automated shuttle

In News, Research & InnovationBy Ada Lang

Most of us have the luxury of not having to think about transportation and mobility. However, about 41 million Americans have disabilities and here in Florida, with its older demographic, providing more mobility options become a higher priority. A research team at the University of Florida (UF) recently studied persons with disabilities’ attitudes about utilizing automated shuttles and found that exposure to autonomous shuttles contributes to positive perceptions.  

Automated shuttles (AS) are small vehicles that drive in autonomous mode over pre-mapped routes with a safety operator monitoring and controlling them with a joystick, if needed. An AS typically uses sensors, light detection, GPS tracking systems and LIDAR to map the safest route. Moving at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, an AS can accommodate 12 occupants – six standing and six seated. The Gainesville AS shuttle route ran through downtown Gainesville and took approximately 20 minutes to complete at about 10 mph.  

Dr. Sherrilene Classen, professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at UF, partnered with the UF Transportation Institute to quantify perceptions of automated vehicles (AV) by persons with disabilities (PWDs.) The research team included Dr. Virginia Sisiopiku, of the University of Alabama in Birmingham; Dr. Justin Mason and Dr. Nicole Stetten, who were both research assistant professors in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Florida during the study. 

During a recent Southeastern Transportation Research, Innovation, Development and Education Center (STRIDE) webinar, Dr. Classen and UF Ph.D. student Seung Woo Hwangbo, OTD (Doctor of Occupational Therapy) explained how they designed a pre-ride survey for PWDs; rode participants on autonomous shuttles and then surveyed participants post-ride. They combined that data with previously collected data from younger, middle-aged and older drivers’ experiences who also rode the AS. 

Participants were between 18 and 90 years old and were selected through self-reported visual, hearing, ambulatory, sensory, self-care and/or independent living impairments. They were asked to consider four aspects of riding in the AS: intention to use, perceived barriers, well-being and acceptance of AS. Their perceptions were also compared to the previously collected data. 

Dr. Classen and her team found that impressions of the PWDs after they rode the AS were mostly positive. Specifically, they found increased acceptance of autonomous shuttles, increased intention to use an autonomous shuttle again and decreased perceived barriers to utilizing the shuttles.  

Dr. Classen explained that while the study results will need further analysis, some early themes or concerns have emerged, including safety (keeping pedestrians, cyclists, passengers and drivers safe,) expanding AS schedules to nights and weekends, adapting to passengers of all mobility levels, and improving affordability and accessibility (handrails or ramps for wheelchair users.) 

The one aspect that stood out in the study as a significant concern was acceptability. Dr. Classen explained that particularly PWDs said they preferred their privacy and weren’t comfortable riding with several other riders and preferred that a safety operator was on board because it made them feel more at ease and protected. Another interesting finding was that no statistically significant differences were detected in the perceptions of PWDs and able-bodied people through the lifespan after their riding experience, suggesting that the AS offers potential community mobility opportunities for all these groups of riders.   

Drs. Classen and Hwangbo concluded that because PWDs experienced the ease of use with AS, they were likely to use AS in the future. However, this was not the case among active drivers who were less likely (compared to non-drivers) to use and/or accept automated shuttles as a transportation option. 

Read more about the study and the final reports