By John Lamb, editor Ability magazine
The iconic 1970s TV series Knight Rider featured an intelligent car that could drive itself and talk to its occupants. At the time it seemed a fanciful notion, but autonomous vehicles are fast becoming a reality.
Hitachi is the latest manufacturer to demonstrate its take on the idea with its single person Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System (ROPITS).
Developed for elderly and disabled drivers, the vehicle is intended for pavements and footpaths, rather than roads. It is equipped with sensors and guidance systems to help it navigate around bumps, potholes, and pedestrians.
The updated mobility scooter, travelling at speeds of around 4mph, has a touch-screen map which is linked to a GPS device to provide general navigation.
The vehicle avoids more immediate hazards with the help of 3D laser distance sensors and stereo cameras fixed to the front.
ROPITS can also cope with curbs and flights of steps. It has: actuators fitted to its wheels that adjust their height as they encounter changes in depth, while a gyro sensor ensures that the vehicle stays upright when negotiating uneven ground.
In case of an emergency, passengers can override the system and take control with a joystick.
There is a lot of interest in self-driving vehicles. The city of Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, is equipped with unmanned solar-powered vehicles that are pre-programmed to shuttle passengers between specified stations, while Berlin has experimented with driverless taxis.
But the leader in the field is Google. In California, adapted Toyota Prius cars have logged more 50,000 miles without a human having to take the wheel. There has only been one accident – caused by a car driven by a human that ran into one of the driverless vehicles.
“Too many people are underserved by the current transport system. They are blind, or too young to drive, or too old, or intoxicated,” declared Google’s founder Sergey Brin.
Several US states are in the process of introducing laws that will allow autonomous vehicles on their roads, but most are playing safe by insisting that a qualified driver is in the vehicle to take over, if necessary.
Robin Christopherson, charity AbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion, urges automobile developers not to overlook the needs of disabled people.
“You do really need to think at every stage at what is required to meet everyone’s needs and not just design for the ordinary person,” he said.
For example, autonomous vehicles would need to have voice output, says Christopherson, if blind people were to use them on their own.
The Really Useful Stuff team would like to thank John Lamb
for kindly writing this guest blog for us.