Driverless vehicles a big opportunity for people with a disability

Driverless vehicles a big opportunity for people with a disability

What might self-driving cars do for people with a disability in places like the Central Coast?

Notwithstanding recent improvements, the Coast still has a relatively poor public transport network, something that hinders people who cannot drive themselves to work or social engagements.

And so it was with much anticipation I travelled to the Newcastle foreshore to experience for myself the driverless shuttle imported from France.

If the shuttle was to be trialled and accepted here on the Central Coast, I could see it being a huge advantage to people living with disabilities, mobility issues, the elderly and people who are unable to drive.

In 2016 approximately 6.4 per cent of people on the Central Coast needed help in their day-to-day lives due to disability. Due to the Central Coasts close proximity to Sydney CBD, on demand access to public transport could open up many more options for employment for people with disabilities.

Many people across the Central Coast also live in suburbs or isolated areas with little to no access to public transport. Apart from family, friends and support workers, these people have very little options for employment or social activities in the community.

Having the flexibility of an ondemand transport method would open up countless opportunities to engage and participate in day-to-day society.

Newcastle City commences trials The City of Newcastle last week commenced a 3-month trial of an automatic shuttle on the Newcastle foreshore between Watt Street and Nobbys Beach roundabouts on weekdays between 10am and 2pm.

The free shuttle is being operated by Keolis Downer, on behalf of the City of Newcastle and shuttles along Wharf Road at around 20km per hour.

The trial is part of a suite of mobility, energy and data innovations contained with the Newcastle Smart City Strategy, which received $5m funding through the Federal Government’s Smart Cities and Suburbs program last year.

The driverless shuttle has undergone rigorous safety planning and testing to operate on public roads. Testing was finalised in midMarch to operate the trial using a fully automated electric NAVYA shuttle.

Keolis Downer is leading the way in the operations of autonomous vehicles with many trials conducted across Australia including at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Flinders University in Adelaide and Sydney Olympic Park.

The trial commenced on July 6 2020 and gives residents and visitors the chance to ride the shuttle for free and provide feedback on the new accessible mode of transport, which will play an important role in customers’ multi-modal journeys in the future.

The fully accessible, 11-seat NAVYA vehicle has the latest technology, with sensors and cameras that assess its surrounding environment.

The on-board computer and sensing systems can detect obstacles, anticipate movement of other vehicles, analyse the risk of collision, measure the vehicle’s velocity and determine its travel route, while also making decisions to slow down, brake and adjust its path.

Newcastle’s driverless shuttle is fully electric and automated however a chaperone will be on board the vehicle when it is operating.

The driverless shuttle trial has been developed in accordance with national and NSW legislation and regulations to ensure it meets required safety standards.

Can it be brought to the Central Coast? I really enjoyed the ride – it was easy to get on and off and I felt comfortable and safe, mainly because it moved very slowly and cautiously (something I think may have frustrated some of the other road users!)

More importantly, I felt excited about the direction of this trial, about the opportunities autonomous vehicle can bring to people with a disability. It made me start to imagine whether the Central Coast Council could consider such an innovative trial as part of its disability inclusion strategy?

As many trials have been conducted in Australia’s large cities, I think a broader trial outside of large built up areas needs to be considered to open up rural and semi-rural areas so that more people have access to their local and broader communities on the Central Coast.

A trial on the Central Coast could be a good model for other large urban areas to implement in their surrounding suburbs and wider communities.

Connecting these wider communities to the main cities and towns across Australia would benefit not only people with disabilities, but other marginalised groups of people who would like to contribute to their economy.

Eric Barrett
Disability Employment Advocate


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