Technology Forum – May 2017
May 18, 2017 | Anthony Stephens
This week, on the eve of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, disability advocates and technology leaders joined in a tour of Local Motors office in National Harbor, Maryland. Just down the Potomac from our nation’s capital, advocates and innovators experience the future of transportation, and there was a sense of optimism amongst our group as we listened to IBM’s Watson greet them from inside a scaled down version of the fully autonomous shuttle named Olli.
The name of the revolutionary vehicle comes from the Italian word for Octopus, a nod given from the vehicle’s creator, who pitched the idea to Local Motors after a global crowd-sourcing competition. The vehicle, debuted in National Harbor last summer, was not just revolutionary by being the world’s first cognitively aware fully autonomous shuttle, but using Local Motors innovative 3D printing micro manufacturing model, it was able to go from design to final production in only three months.
Working with IBM and the CTA Foundation, Local Motors is moving forward toward making the next generation of Olli to be the world’s most accessible vehicle in the world. And leveraging their innovative tactics toward design and manufacturing, concepts that once seemed science fiction are becoming reality at a speed similar to that on the Autobahn.
One of the greatest barriers to independence for people with disabilities has been accessible transportation. In the same breath, one of the greatest barrier busters for independence of people with disabilities has been the recent innovations through technology to augment the loss of particular abilities. This is what makes the Olli vehicle so promising for those looking to innovate in a way that can push the envelope for true universal design.
Last year, I had the opportunity to serve on the Department of Transportation’s negotiated rulemaking committee for the Air Carrier Access Act, where advocates and airline industry leaders got together to find ways to make air travel more accessible. The experience was a complete eye-opener (pardon the pun) on the constraints that traditional manufacturing place on innovation around universal design. Trying to make a Boeing 737 fully accessible was like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime. Of course, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) have much fewer constraints than jet aircraft. However, Local Motors demonstrated the process by which a traditional highway vehicle with 2500 parts could be supplanted by a 3D printer in under 44 hours with just 44 parts.
Local Motors achieves its success around innovation using concepts still being developed through the intersection of crowd-sourcing and micro-manufacturing. This method turns traditional manufacturing constraints up-side-down, breaking down barriers to what was often tethered to costly R&D. Such changes in the paradigm of manufacturing holds significant opportunities in the sphere of accessible design.
It’s in this same spirit that Local Motors, IBM, and CTA Foundation are reaching out to accessibility minded groups, in hopes to create a vehicle that can be accessible to everyone. It might not be a car that can fly, but it has the potential of being a vehicle that communicates in multiple mediums including ASL, can tell blind passengers which way to the front door, have self-releasing ramps for wheel chairs, send messages to family members on the travel status of their loved ones with cognitive disabilities, or any other accessibility feature that you can dare to dream. Indeed, that’s where the biggest challenge will lay – not in what we refuse to do, but in what we refuse to imagine.
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Anthony Stephens, an AAPD Technology Forum participant, is the Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for the American Council of the Blind, a leading grassroots consumer organization for people who are blind and visually impaired in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @StopThatOr.
The AAPD Technology Forum serves as a strategic meeting of national disability advocacy organizations and representatives from the technology industry with a mission to holistically drive and accelerate innovations to advance the interests of underrepresented groups. The accessibility of various technologies, devices, and applications continues to be an essential part of the forum’s deliberations.