UMaine researchers awarded $300k to make autonomous vehicles more accessible

Smartphone app will help seniors and people with disabilities interact with driverless services.
Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 5:52 PM EST
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ORONO, Maine (WABI) - ”We’re already at the point where semi-autonomous vehicles are running on the road.”

Richard Corey is the director of the Virtual Environments and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory, also known as the VEMI Lab at UMaine.

According to him, cars that are fully autonomous will likely become common within the next few decades.

“This future doesn’t involve a driver. The technology is moving a lot faster than people think.”

The VEMI Lab is working to ensure that future is accessible to everyone, including those with visual impairments.

“In short it’s a mobility app to help people navigate to an autonomous vehicle.”

The Autonomous Vehicle Assistant, or AVA, is intended to bridge the gap between any user and a driverless vehicle.

“If you’ve been at any sort of a large function in your life where you’ve called an Uber or Lyft sometimes its really hard if you’re coming out of a theater or something to find that vehicle.” says Corey.

Paul Fink is a graduate researcher at VEMI Lab working on the project. “This is going to be way more difficult when autonomous vehicles look a lot a like.”

Last month the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $300,000 for continued development of the project, which is still in its infancy.

“We were selected as semifinalists for the inclusive design challenge from the department of transportation.” said Fink. “That funds us for the next two years to basically put together this application and then we’ll be going down to DC and competing against the ten other semifinalists that were selected.”

The competition isn’t cutthroat though. In addition to collaborating with Colby College and Northeastern University on AVA, they hope to share ideas with other semifinalists, some of whom are working on ways autonomous vehicles can interact with wheelchair users.

“There’s no reason for two people to reinvent the wheel.” said Corey. “Let’s see if there’s a way for us to find a way to move this forward together.”

Fink is optimistic about the driverless future. “Having autonomous vehicles that are easy to get to is going to be enormously beneficial for increasing people’s mobility and independence.”

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