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Purdue researchers design fully autonomous vehicle for people with disabilities

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WISH) — Two honks filled the air to let people with disabilities know an autonomous vehicle had arrived to give them a ride.

That’s the future that researchers at Purdue University are trying to make reality. They entered and won a U.S. Department of Transportation competition with their EASI RIDER project. “EASI RIDER” is an acronym for Efficient Accessible and Safe Interaction in a Real Integrated Design Environment for Riders.

The vehicle has a ramp and restraints to help people with disabilities get on and get around. Purdue researcher Brad Duerstock said, “It’s something that a lot of people take for granted.”

Duerstock brought his own personal experiences to the project. He’s been wheelchair-bound since age 18

“Independence is really decreased if you have to rely on someone to drive you everywhere,” Duerstock said.

He’s not alone.

Duerstock’s fellow Purdue researcher Brandon Pitts said, “There’s more than 25 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities who, until now, have really had to struggle with how do they get around.”

The two worked for 18 months to create the vehicle in collaboration with other Indiana companies.

It could take 2½ years to make the autonomous vehicle a reality on the roads, said Mike Pugh, who works for project collaborator BraunAbility. The company is headquartered in the Indiana town of Winamac.

Pugh said, “It’ll start out in the most controlled environment, so maybe even a large hospital campus or even a college campus, and then gradually start expanding taking on more responsibility.”

The fully autonomous vehicle won’t just be for people in wheelchairs. “Those with visual impairments, those with cognitive impairments all have difficulties with transportation,” Duerstock said.

Purdue will use grant money won through the competition to work with automakers to make the prototype into a reality.