Braille Monitor               May 2023

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Going My Way: Driving Accessibility through Innovative Autonomous Transportation

by Michelle Peacock

Michelle PeacockFrom the Editor: Here are the remarks President Riccobono made in introducing a wonderful presentation on the future of self-driving cars, something that got a big cheer from everyone in the hall when introduced. It appeared on the afternoon of July 10 at our national convention in New Orleans.

Mark Riccobono: From the beginning of the work on our Blind Driver Challenge, we've used it as a platform to talk about access to all stages of the work done in this country—well, really, around the world—on autonomous vehicle technology. The Federation has participated with autonomous vehicle companies all over the world. More and more of the leaders that are working in the autonomous vehicle industry have come to understand and prioritize our message of equal access. Waymo is one of the key companies in this emerging industry, and our next speaker is its global head of public policy. Her career has centered on building and growing government relation programs for large, small, established, and startup companies in fields like financial services, high tech, and transportation. We're proud to have her company as a partner in our work to transform accessible transportation options for blind people. Here's Michelle Peacock:

Hi, everyone. I'm Michelle Peacock. It's great to be here today. What an amazing time this has been. This whole convention has been spectacular. I've met so many great people. I want to give a shoutout to my new best friend, Saylor Cooper, from Houston. [Applause] It's just been amazing to meet so many people like Saylor earlier today.

So let's talk about Waymo—the words stand for new way forward. We strive to make it safer and easier for people and things to move around. Fully autonomous technology promises to offer more road safety and transportation options for millions and millions of people. Waymo is building the Waymo Driver, which is our proprietary, fully autonomous driving system. We are doing this across two lines of business: Waymo One, our fully autonomous ride-hailing service that's now operating in the metro Phoenix area; and Waymo Via, which is focused on all forms of commercial goods delivery, including heavy-duty trucking and local delivery.

Now, I was asked this question earlier today, which is, “When can I buy one of these Waymo cars?” [Cheering] Well, the answer is that you're not. [Laughter] Awww. We don't manufacture cars to sell to the public. The cars that we are operating in San Francisco are beautiful Jaguar Land Rover I-PACES. So what we're doing is operating a fleet of AV cars and heavy-duty trucks with an autonomous driver, and we think this will help improve road safety. We are promoting the availability of options without the need to buy this car.

We're the most experienced AV company, with eleven years of experience in autonomous vehicles. In 2009 we started as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, and in 2011, we began to develop our own hardware and sensors in-house. There's nothing on the market that could deliver this full autonomous capability. In 2015 we completed the world's first fully autonomous ride on public roads. This was in Austin, Texas, with our friend, Steve Mann, who was blind. And in 2020, we launched to the world the first fully autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix. We're now completing testing of Waymo One in San Francisco.

Like I said, we believe the Waymo driver has the ability to dramatically improve road safety because it's always paying attention. It doesn't get tired or distracted; it doesn't have to yell at kids in the back seat; it doesn’t have to contend with spilling food; or; neither does it, like I do, try to find Dua Lipa on the radio.

Let me talk about our accessibility vision because we think AVs promise so much for accessibility. I'll focus on Waymo One, our ride-hail service.

As I said before, because we own our fleet, we're uniquely positioned to add accessibility features to our product in a way that the manually operated ride-hailing companies just can't do. That's significant because we believe that the benefits of AVs will be brought to the public, consumers, and the market through shared-ride hailing before they reach customers via car ownership. Waymo One's service means more riders will benefit sooner than they otherwise would, and our efforts are fully in line with the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Our efforts at the user experience are exactly what we're trying to accomplish here this weekend. Collaborations with the community help raise the bar for user experience for everyone. We're proud of this work, but in addition to that, I'm really excited to share that we've recently expanded our partnership and are collaborating with NFB on accessible infrastructure legislation in Congress that will advance our joint missions.

Waymo's had a longstanding relationship with the blind community. Our "Let's Talk Autonomous Driving" campaign highlights the benefits of autonomous driving technology for people who cannot drive, including organizations like Foundation for Blind Children, LightHouse for the Blind SF, and World Blind Union. In a minute, I'll talk you through the different ways we've designed our app for accessibility. But before I do, I want to stress two things. First, we know that we're not done. We understand that our service is a work in progress, and there's more that we can do to meet our riders' needs over time. We've heard from the community that “nothing about us without us,” and we've definitely put that into practice. So we want to make sure that we're engaging with all of you on this process, collecting feedback, and using it to constantly improve our service.

Then the second thing I wanted to point out is that this spirit of inclusive design actually benefits all of our customers. On several occasions we've built inclusive design features and have found that those that were ostensibly built for the disabled community have been things that improved user experience for the entire business. Let's talk about these inclusive design features in Waymo One. These include the option to minimize walking time when ordering a trip; turn-by-turn walking navigation; the ability to honk the car's horn remotely; and the option to contact rider support.

To ensure our service is accessible for riders with various needs, we have taken two broad approaches to developing these features. First, we've conducted user research with these riders. We've had them use our app, take rides in the car, talk to the support team, and inevitably this identifies opportunities for improvement which are then added to the product development.

Second, we've gathered feedback from internal riders that have disabilities. These are people at our sister company, Google, who have disabilities, and we get them in the car and get really valuable direct feedback from them as well.

It is also important to highlight the role that NFB played in helping us develop this technology. When we first started autonomous driving in Chandler, Arizona, in 2017, NFB was invited to be part of our trusted tester program, in which blind people have been able to take test rides and give us detailed feedback. That's been a treasure trove of data for us to have.

Let me talk about Waymo One and these features. Once a user has onboarded with us, the user can navigate to the accessibility settings, so I want to talk you through this experience. First, the user orders a car using the Waymo One app. The app is usable with a screen reader, which allows blind users to navigate by hearing labels and buttons read out loud. Then, what happens after that is the pickup process. And, you know, this also creates some challenges. From time to time, a rider might experience some competing factors at pickup or drop-off. This would often involve balancing two things: A safe area to meet the car for a pickup, and that place requiring a longer walk to get there.

So Waymo makes sure the rider is alerted to this situation as it happens and gives them the tools to help locate the vehicle. For example, we provide pickup and drop-off warnings for long walks before a trip is even ordered. So if a rider decides that's too long a walk, they can decline the ride if that doesn't work. And we can provide information for more specific scenarios, like if the drop-off is in a parking lot.

But limiting the walking is big for us. To do that, under the accessibility settings, users will find a feature called minimize walking time. Here's how it works. As I mentioned before, cars sometimes give these tradeoffs to give the user a shorter overall journey but more walking time. For example, if a car needs to circle a block in order to pick up a passenger, it may decide to stop across the street for passenger pickup. But this feature would have a disproportionate impact on blind users. So the blind user could instead request that the vehicle go ahead and circle the block and come right to where I'm standing, so that person doesn't have to cross the street. This feature allows them to do that. Another feature is rider-only matching. So when we talk about these fully autonomous cars, our shorthand is rider only, there's no driver in the car. So when users hail a ride, we alert them to the fact that this ride may be rider only with no driver present before it arrives, and provides additional information, like a list of ten things you need to know about this ride. If the user isn't comfortable with rider only or actually needs a person to help them, we give them a tool so they can notify us or cancel the ride.

We have also added some new tools to help the rider locate the vehicle. First is the vehicle ID. So this helps people with lower vision who could see color or a few bright letters from far away rather than the license plate. With this, we highlight a two-digit ID number at the top of the car with LED, and it can be customized by color. Right now in San Francisco you often see it flashed up as the initials of the person taking the ride. So when I do this, I look for the initials MP, because it's coming for me. So I use this all the time; it’s not just for people with disabilities but to help people find their car.

Another tool is honking the horn. I have used this tool also, where you can, from the app, press a button and it will honk the horn. This was again made for blind individuals to make it easier to find the car when there wasn't a person behind the wheel to call. But again, this is a great benefit. I use this all the time and not because it's funny, but I actually use it to find the car too. In San Francisco there's a lot of these cars on the street, so it's really helpful to find them when you need to.

Once the rider is in the car, we've added other settings that help provide assistive audio. These are tools that help visually impaired riders get context about what's happening in the car. So for example, the vehicle will tell riders when it's yielding for a pedestrian or stopping at a traffic light, just to give riders comfort to know that the car is on track and their ride is continuing as expected. [Cheering and applause]. I like the cheers, but I will say, this is a tool we built for inclusivity, but actually everybody likes this! My husband and I were in a car recently, and we were like, this is so cool, I know exactly what's going on. It's a tremendous benefit for everyone too.

Once in a while, things don't go as planned on these rides, and that's where our rider support team can step in and help us be prepared for the unexpected. Once in the vehicle, we have the live rider support team just one tap away. They're available in the car and also from the app. For example, rarely the Waymo vehicle may need to come to a full stop when it doesn't know how to proceed. There may be debris in the road that it can't identify or get around. In those scenarios, a member of the Waymo roadside assistance team will join the ride, take over control, and complete the trip. And we want to make sure we're effectively communicating about this for everyone who is taking the ride.

In addition to the internal screen on the car where we show what's happening, we also provide audio announcements, as well as talk riders through the event. Our rider support team will also call and provide a high-touch experience that explains to the rider what is happening and answers questions and will describe what happens next.

We're very proud of these features that are available in the car and in the app today. But there is even more ahead of us. For Waymo is a participant in the United States Department of Transportation Inclusive Design Challenge. This is a very exciting project that we've been involved in, too. It's sort of taking what we've done, the OG features, and boosting them up even more. So as I shared with you today, we have come a long way since 2011 in developing this technology, and this is really just the beginning. We are so excited to have been selected as a semifinalist in the US DOT Inclusive Design Challenge! [Cheering and applause] Thank you. This challenge seeks to help us develop new solutions for people with needs to make use of autonomous vehicles to access jobs and health care and other critical decisions. Through our user research and feedback from riders—are you hearing a theme—in developing this fully autonomous technology, we've learned one of the largest challenges for low-vision riders is finding the car at pickup. This research has formed the heart of our challenge submission, and after being selected as a semifinalist in January 2021, we've moved to stage two, which is where we are now, so fingers crossed. In stage two, our team prototyped additional accessibility features beyond those that we've just talked about, and they will include adaptive app navigation, visual, audio, and haptic cues to navigate to a vehicle, purpose-built car sounds for wayfinding, locating with headlights, and hands-free car communication. And also video chat support.

So in total, we've developed features that fell into eleven different categories, all aimed at improving accessibility. [Cheering and applause] I love all the whoos! That is great.

So, one area of focus, as we talked about, is wayfinding. And our proposal included using creative speech, such as explaining the position of the Waymo vehicle by noting verbally things like "the car is fifteen feet away from you as the crow flies," using everyday language to help people navigate to where the car is. We also include purpose-built sounds that help people engage more effectively with the app and haptic vibrations, where we use like a hot and cold approach that can alert users when they're getting closer to the car. Some of you may use Apple watch, and it will vibrate when you're making turns for navigation. This will use something similar to tell you you're getting warmer, you're getting colder.

Earlier, as you remember, I mentioned my fondness for the horn honking because it is really fun. But one of the challenges you might imagine is that the horn honking on the Waymo cars sounds a lot like other cars' horns honking. So through this challenge we designed a custom horn sound different than the standard honk. I've listened to a couple versions of it. One has this distinctive trill sound, and another one is a lovely melody that plays, just a very lovely, bright, and cheerful melody. You'll know when you hear that sound that that's the Waymo car and not a different car with a similar sound honking. We think that might also help people who are not customers of Waymo cars, but are bystanders who don't like the sound of more horns in urban environments.

If you can imagine a scenario where a blind user of Waymo is trying to find a car but they have things in their hands, like groceries, a cane, or a child, it might not be easy for them to pull out the phone and engage with the phone to press the button to have this noise made. So we're working on finding a way to have the car recognize that the user is just close, and then send the signal itself so that the person would be able to find the car. We're very excited about this challenge. We should have the outcome with the winners announced any day now, and we're really hopeful to win. So all of you, send your good vibes out there to the US DOT!

This has been an amazing opportunity for us. We love the partnership with the organization, and I just want to say thank you to all of you and to the Federation. I am really proud of Waymo's focus on accessibility, and we're so grateful to be constantly learning from our riders and local and national disability groups. I think together we'll just continue to be dedicated to bringing more accessible autonomous driving to the world! So thank you. [Applause]

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