Technology Takes A Ride

By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor — November 27, 2013

There are more than 6.6 million visually impaired individuals in the United States, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Regardless of the disability, many lead productive and fulfilling lives. However, there are still everyday obstacles to work around, simple tasks that sighted individuals usually take for granted, like navigation for example.
 
The relatively easy, (yet perhaps irritating) task of taking a cab in New York City creates a major problem for a person with limited sight, when he or she can’t tell if the location is correct, or whether or not a driver is simply ripping them off.
 
Jesse Davis, owner of Creative Mobile Technologies (CMT) set about to change the entire system by creating adaptive software that allows visually impaired passengers to hear the fare, verify the destination reached, and make a payment, without sacrificing autonomy.
 
Project Go-Ahead
The first question Davis asked was, “What can we do with the existing equipment already in the cars?” he said to Mobile Enterprise. Actually, he added, he was embarrassed by his initial reaction. (How does a blind person even get in a cab?)

“What became apparent is that the existing hardware had touchscreen and audio. The challenge was then, ‘how can we modify through software the touchscreen, so it can be used from text to speech?’”

With a working prototype within two months, a solution was then deployed two months following that, with heavy testing among focus groups in three major cities. Participants, many recruited by Lighthouse International, dissected every aspect of the new solution, even the voice they most wanted to hear.

In Action
How does it work? A passenger enters a cab and the system is activated. Upon reaching the destination, a proper audio stream will announce that the trip has ended, along with fare due (including itemized charges, such as tolls.)

Then, a passenger is prompted to pay via instructions, and enter a tip, another task easily taken for granted by a sighted individual. Initially, the solution was set at a 15% default, with the ability to increase or decrease the amount. However, the focus groups were more than uncomfortable with this. After all, who wanted to offend a driver by decreasing the amount (something he would be able to overhear.) So now, the tip starts at zero.

“The unspoken truth about most cab markets, especially in New York, is that the driver earns 100% of the fare," Davis said. (Although they pay lease, gas, maintenance fees, etc.) In addition to giving more control to the passenger, increasing a tip from a starting point of zero is also a win for the driver, who can hear the exchange and know the passenger is pleased.

Overcoming Challenges
Davis noted that it took a few iterations to get the right phrasing for payment instructions, because an individual needs to know which way to hold the credit card and swipe. Again, the focus groups greatly helped in that regard.

Another initial challenge was activation mode. Initially, a button was supplied to the cab driver to turn the system on, but that took away the feeling of independence for the passenger. CMT then created an activation card. But as the program expanded, it did not scale well, and outreach was impractical, Davis said. (400K would be needed in New York alone.) The company decided on installing an enhancement, so that a multi-tap now activates the system. In addition, the visually impaired mode turns off advertising.

Driving Forward
CMT initially rolled out with another carrier, but Davis hates having all his eggs in one basket, especially as not every carrier works in every market, or at prices he can afford. “T-Mobile’s broadband connection is extremely important,” he noted, adding that because the carrier has become aggressive with M2M, it resulted in very attractive offers. Some areas saved 30% off existing plans while boosting connectivity from 3G to 4G.

Most importantly, going with T-Mobile has allowed him to branch into markets he might not have been able to enter. Half the cabs in New York have rolled out the solution, and over a dozen other cities now use it, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philly, Cleveland and Chicago.

The company has started expanding internationally in London, Moscow and potentially Toronto. Davis also recently introduced the technology to the Boston area during a transportation conference, and expects more cities to come on board in 2014 and beyond, especially as legislation passes that demands more accessibility for all citizens.

Not staying static, CMT has since made solution enhancements, giving visually impaired individuals the same control as the sighted. For example, the volume and speed of voice can be adjusted. And, if a passenger misses an audio prompt, a repeat button will replay the last stream, and announce the vehicle’s medallion number and driver ID. (The passenger bill of rights is also available through an audio version.)

Finally, if a passenger wants to know what the location is, one press of a button will find the longitude and latitude, translating that into a readable address through reverse geo coding.

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