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DEI Chats: Vehicle Accessibility for the Visually Impaired

Posted: January 18, 2022

Each month, SAE International is having honest conversations with our members, volunteers, and employees about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of mobility. We reflect with our partners on how identity has shaped their experience in the field and how we can work toward a more equitable and inclusive future.

This month, we’re considering vehicle accessibility for the visually impaired, and how autonomous vehicle technology could help introduce independence and agency for people with disabilities.

Across the globe, more than 2.2 billion people deal with some form of visual impairment, according to the World Health Organization. For those dealing with vision impairment, traveling can become anything from a nuisance to a full-on nightmare, depending on the availability of accessible public transportation, ridesharing or ridesourcing, or reliable family or friends who can help facilitate transportation. The hurdles folks with visual impairment or other disabilities face when trying to simply get from point A to point B can be frustrating and feel dehumanizing as they become dependent on these systems that are not always a reliable or efficient resource.

As the automotive industry moves toward an autonomous future, those in the visually impaired community stand to reap some of the greatest benefits from an investment in this technology, giving them back their independence and agency to get around, especially those living in car-dependent communities.

“In a simple sense, the potential benefits of ADS (Automated Driving System) technology will result from using machines, rather than humans, to operate vehicles,” said George Nicols, Advanced Technology Standards Engineer at Toyota North America and Chair of SAE International’s On-Road Automated Driving (ORAD) committee. “Implementation of ADS technology, specifically Level 4 and Level 5 (per SAE J3016), could enable people with disabilities to independently use personal electronic devices to make travel arrangements closer to on-demand. However, various issues need to be resolved before this condition is widely realized.”

As Nicols explains, the ADS technology is still in development, and communication processes for the rider to interact with the vehicle need to be established. There are also other considerations outside of evolving the technology to make independence for affected communities a reality, like vehicle management and maintenance.

ORAD is working toward an automated future, with one of its focus areas being issues for persons with disabilities. In 2019, the committee published SAE J3171: Identifying Automated Driving Systems-Dedicated Vehicles (ADS-DVs) Passenger Issues for Persons with Disabilities, which provides information regarding universal design principals and guidance for developers working on vehicles with Level 4 or Level 5 technology aimed at accommodating people who are unable to obtain a driver’s license due to visual, mild cognitive, or certain physical impairments. Information was sourced from a review of existing literature and interviews with experts, including persons with disabilities.

Currently in development is a new standard, SAE J3261, which is intended to provide a compendium of resources for engineers to use in the design and development of vehicle interfaces, safety systems, and mobility accommodations. ORAD’s goal is to make this information readily accessible for the ADS technology community.

“The possibilities are ultimately determined by developers. ORAD members are neutral on how technology is designed, and that is reflected in the documents we create. This enables developers to maximize creativity in their designs,” Nicols said. “With that, I personally anticipate several different technologies will be integrated to the benefit of the vision impaired and other people with disabilities. Challenges may arise in integrating technologies that have not been integrated before. However, I am optimistic that such challenges can be overcome and that ORAD can play a role.”

Interested in helping ORAD with their work ensuring safety in our autonomous future? Visit to find out how to get involved at SAE International.