A self-driving car won’t be able to accommodate an autistic student’s chair if you happen to be pulling up in front of the campus building and are not going in the same direction. That seems to be exactly the dilemma that’s facing engineers designing and testing future vehicles with technologies that interact directly with the environment.
Leon Van Winkle, a student in the master’s program in electrical and computer engineering at George Washington University, is studying what the vehicles could do to make life easier for people with disabilities, like people who use wheelchairs or are blind or deaf.
Though Van Winkle’s goal is to design self-driving vehicles that can be operated smoothly and safely by everyone, most people with disabilities probably won’t be as interested in the cars as the engineers who will build them.
But Van Winkle’s father, Craig, said he hopes students will be inspired by his son’s research and its potential impact on their own life and careers.
A graduate of the DeWitt Clinton High School in Syracuse, N.Y., Van Winkle is 18 and about to finish his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at GWU. He grew up with a hyperactive sister who was diagnosed with autism, but has struggled with it in his own life.
“The biggest issue he has had to deal with is a lack of independence and having to rely on others and third parties. Everyone struggles with it in their own life in some way,” Craig Van Winkle said.
“In many ways, he reminds me of himself. He’s very driven and he wants to accomplish something and see it through. He’s a perfectionist.”
At GWU, he’s been part of a team focused on how autonomous vehicles could be used by people with disabilities. The research is in its early stages, and it won’t be all that long before the products would be delivered to the public.
“They really care about making sure that there are the standards and the protocols to enable these cars to work with people with disabilities,” Van Winkle said.
Marc A. Lansnock, the director of the Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering program at GWU, said he introduced Van Winkle to the researchers through the On Campus Institute, a GWU program that promotes student leadership and careers in science and technology fields.