Kelly Buckland doesn't need a white paper to explain the particulars. He is executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, one of several advocacy groups working with VW on the issue, and he uses a power wheelchair daily.
"This is a long-standing problem, but it becomes even more important with autonomous vehicles," Buckland said this month in an interview. "With all the sensors and things needed for autonomous vehicles, unless it comes wheelchair accessible, I can't take it somewhere to make it wheelchair accessible. We think it's impactive that, if the industry is going to make autonomous vehicles, you have to make it wheelchair accessible from the get-go."
The onset of electrified vehicles presents an added challenge, and an opportunity for broader mobility options, for those who use wheelchairs.
While the vehicles' skateboard design and flat load floor may be more easily configured to accommodate a wheelchair, the floor-mounted battery packs mean added floor height, making it more difficult for someone in a wheelchair to enter or exit.
It's just one of numerous challenges, including how to secure the wheelchair in the vehicle and how to secure the passenger in the chair in a way that meets federal safety standards. Designers also have to allow for wheelchair users to be able to operate the vehicle manually.
A team of vehicle engineers, designers and researchers at VW's advanced user-experience studio in Belmont, California, is leading the automaker's study.
"It's definitely going to take collaboration between OEMs, advocacy groups, wheelchair manufacturers and securement providers to make sure that whatever we develop is an effective and safe solution," said Shani Jayant, principal user experience designer for Volkswagen Group of America, who's working on the mobility project.
Jayant said VW designers in California started looking at the issue in late 2017, and quickly realized they needed specialized consulting.
"There are many other disability groups we're working with. I think it's just important that we have everyone at the table from Day One to make sure that solutions for one group aren't in conflict with solutions for another group," she said. "I think it's going to be an ongoing process. We're still in the early stages of design."
The effort has support from the highest levels within the automaker.
"Transportation is the key to full participation in society," Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said in a written statement. "And for individuals with disabilities today, the options can be limited. Volkswagen is known as the people's car company, and as the technology allows, we want to design vehicles that are more accessible."