WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A group of Purdue University researchers won a $1 million prize in a brand new contest that focuses on inclusive transportation.

Researchers like Brad Duerstock developed an autonomous vehicle prototype as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new “Inclusive Design Challenge.” Duerstock and his partners developed what they call the “EASI RIDER.”

According to the university, the name is an acronym that stands for “Efficient, Accessible and Safe Interaction in a Real Integrated Design Environment for Riders with disabilities.” 

Duerstock had a spinal cord injury more than 30 years ago. He has long been interested in research and developing inclusive technologies due to his own lived experiences.

The prototype is considered a “concept vehicle,” meaning it does not actually drive. Rather, it uses concepts that display how people with disabilities could be able to operate and use an autonomous vehicle.

“There’s over 25 million Americans that have what we consider travel limiting disabilities,” Duerstock said. “Transportation as you know is very important. This lack of access really prevents people with disabilities and the elderly community to be able to access healthcare, get employment, educational opportunities.”

According to the university and the Department of Transportation, the concept vehicle “incorporates universal design features to accommodate people with physical and sensory disabilities.”

It features an automatically deploying “Smart Ramp,” an automated wheelchair docking system, a touch screen user-interface that allows users to adjust multiple features that can accommodate any impairments they may have.

It also assists users in locating an automated vehicle, boarding and exiting the vehicle, securing themselves and their mobility aids. Riders can interact with the vehicle via touch screen and voice control. Duerstock said it can help people with physical, visual, or speech impairments.

“I think people with disabilities, and the aging community are going to be early stakeholders in autonomous vehicles,” he described. “Right now, they’re [manufacturers] testing it in a lot of different fashions, but in terms of the need of independent transportation, really, it’s this group of users that I think would really have a great impact.”

Duerstock said technologies are often adapted for people with disabilities in hindsight.

“We really want this to be at the forefront of their decision making,” Duerstock said. “You think about airline transportation, even personal vehicles, and buses. A lot of those have to be retroactively modified to allow and accommodate people with disabilities.”

Duerstock said he hopes car manufacturers will use these concepts as they continue to develop and produce autonomous vehicles in the future.

In the meantime, the university will continue its research and use the prize money to develop a center for inclusive design at Purdue University.

“We can continue looking at design elements and also for inclusive design, but also for promoting this use and to keep this in the forefront,” Duerstock described. “We’re at the forefront of autonomous transportation and I hope to see more interaction with these types of vehicles in actual community settings in the future.”