Project to Develop Self-driving Cars for Parkinson’s Seeks Patients

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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A new project by scientists at the University of Michigan (UM) aims to design a prototype autonomous vehicle that’s specifically designed to help meet the needs of people living with Parkinson’s disease.

The project, called “Inclusive Design in Shared Autonomous Vehicles for People with Parkinson’s Disease,” is being funded by a $40,000 grant from the UM-Dearborn – UM-Flint Collaborative Research Funding Program.

Nathaniel Miller, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UM-Flint, is one of the scientists leading the project. Miller, whose grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015, has previously worked on developing apps that can help Parkinson’s patients monitor their disease symptoms.

“Researching Parkinson’s disease was a way for me to mix my academic passion with family,” Miller said in a university press release.

Also collaborating on the project are Charlotte Tang, PhD a UM-Flint associate professor of computer science, and Shan Bao, PhD, a UM-Dearborn associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.

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Parkinson’s disease is marked by a number of symptoms that may make driving difficult and/or unsafe, including motor symptoms such as tremor as well as non-motor disturbances such as unusual sleepiness or hallucinations. But getting care typically requires patients to travel long distances in order to see specialists; the average in-person specialist visit would involve traveling about 100 miles, requiring a patient to spend more than three hours driving, according to Miller.

The idea for a project about autonomous vehicles arose during the development of an app for Parkinson’s patients, as the scientists were working to understand the practical needs of people with the disease.

Autonomous vehicles, sometimes called “self-driving” cars, are designed so that certain actions — particularly functions critical for safety, like steering, acceleration, or braking — don’t require active input from the driver.

“A recurring theme that has come up is that people with Parkinson’s disease have different lifestyles but they share the desire to carry out tasks independently,” Miller said.

The aim of this project is to create an autonomous vehicle specifically designed to accommodate the needs of Parkinson’s patients. This summer, the researchers will be working to design the study, which will involve simulated driving scenarios conducted at labs across the three UM campuses.

The researchers are now looking for Parkinson’s patients to participate in the project, which is expected to begin this autumn. For more information or to get involved, patients can contact Miller at [email protected].

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