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U.S. DOT offers $5 million in prizes to boost AV accessibility

U.S. DOT offers $5 million in prizes to boost AV accessibility

The U.S. Department of Transportation is holding a $5 million competition to help ensure autonomous vehicles are accessible to people with disabilities.

The competition is called the Inclusive Design Challenge. It follows in the tradition of the DARPA Grand Challenge and DARPA Urban Challenge. Those competitions, staged by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency starting in 2004, helped ignite the race to commercialize self-driving cars.

This time, the idea is to make it easier for people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities to use automated vehicles. Projects can involve software or hardware.

Finch Fulton, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, says it’s important to act now, while AV technology is in its infancy and designs are evolving.

“We have to partner with the private-sector innovators that are creating this technology early on, so we can shape the development and make sure it can be accessible for all as the technology develops,” Fulton said Tuesday in a webinar presented by Partners for Automated Vehicle Education.

Stage one of the competition is underway. The department will accept entries through Oct. 30. Early next year, officials will name as many as 10 semifinalists. They will receive $300,000 each to help take their prototypes to stage two.

“So, at the end of that second stage, the three finalists will receive the remainder of that $5 million prize first, and we have additional monies that we’re thinking about in the future to shape these initiatives, to keep this going,” Fulton said.

“This is not a one-time deal. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are going to have to have that continued engagement at a number of different levels throughout this initiative.”

The entries will be judged on technical merit, production feasibility and potential impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Fulton said it’s important that innovators address the complete trip.

“You have to be able to locate the vehicle itself. You’ve got to be able to enter into the vehicle. You’ve got to be able to secure passengers and equipment. You have to put information in about where you want to go. You have to be able to interact with the systems, during normal situations or when something goes wrong in an emergency situation. You’ve got to be able to exit it and get to where you’re going.

“There are a lot of commonsense steps that somebody that hasn’t really faced these challenges would maybe forget to think through as they’re working on concepts.”

— Leslie J. Allen

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