Waymo is introducing a raft of new features designed to make its fleet of autonomous taxis more accessible to passengers with visual impairments and other disabilities.
The new features are sure to draw attention when they start hitting the streets. They include displaying the rider’s initials on the rooftop dome as a visual way to identify their assigned vehicle at a near-to-medium distance. The display shows the user’s customizable “Car ID,” which consists of two colored letters that can be configured via the Waymo app.
Another feature offers turn-by-turn navigation to guide the rider on the most appropriate path to their awaiting robotaxi, utilizing data on sidewalks, crosswalks, and other terrain features to provide the most suitable route.
The Alphabet-owned company, which first demonstrated one of its autonomous vehicles publicly with a visually impaired man in the driver’s seat back in 2015, says the new features were developed as part of Waymo’s participation in the US Department of Transportation’s first-ever Inclusive Design Challenge. And while the company didn’t win the challenge (that honor went to Purdue University), Waymo decided to incorporate the new features into its Waymo One ride-hailing service that’s currently operating in Arizona and California.
“Winning would have been nice,” said Kevin Malta, a product manager at Waymo who led development for these features. But “building these features was always the primary aim.”
Another interesting feature is aimed at passengers with visual impairments. In order to ensure they get in the right vehicle, the Waymo AV will emit a uniquely melodic chime to help direct them. Malta said that working with advocates from the blind and low-vision community helped develop a product that would be useful to riders while also keeping in mind the ill effects of noise pollution and aggressive honking.
“In our testing, a lot of riders really loved it,” Malta said. “Not to mention that the car horn can be a little cacophonous. And so it was euphonious to be able to use this melody instead. Because we didn’t want to add to traffic noise pollution.”
The last feature that Waymo will be rolling out was a distance-to-car compass that’s designed to help riders find their vehicle in places where GPS may be unreliable. It’s meant to supplement the turn-by-turn navigation feature, which lacks precision to direct riders toward a specific pinpointed spot and can lose its usefulness as riders move closer to their vehicle.
Autonomous vehicles have long been held up as a solution to the many transportation woes confronted by people with disabilities. But the absence of a human driver, and a litany of broken promises from other tech companies promising solutions, has left some passengers skeptical that AVs can really help improve accessibility in a meaningful way.
The cost and difficulty in deploying wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) is a big obstacle for the AV industry, but Waymo has been making some progress there. According to a recent report from the California Public Utilities Commission, Waymo reported delivering 11 manual WAV trips in San Francisco over the course of the most recent reporting period. (The trips were completed with conventional vehicles, not Waymo’s autonomous vehicles, with rides arranged on the company’s Waymo One app, a spokesperson said.) The company also reported that it completed 1,518 trips with accessibility features enabled, which the spokesperson said was an indication of “strong adoption.”
Waymo wants to set itself apart from the tech industry by working in direct collaboration with disability advocates, including San Francisco’s chapter of Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Malta said. The hope is that, by involving passengers with disabilities directly in the design and testing process for new features, the company can help make the case that its AVs will help improve transportation equity in the long run.
“There might not be a human being in the front seat,” he added, “but we haven’t lost the human touch in the experience.”