As the recent CES conference in Las Vegas showed, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are rapidly gaining exposure and acceptance. Yet while automakers showed off their latest concepts and developments to gleeful onlookers at the conference, the biggest impacts in AV innovation may well be experienced by the six million disabled people in the U.S. who have difficulty accessing the transportation they need every day.
This transformative potential for the disability community is highlighted in the findings of a white paper released this week by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). The report includes research finding that AVs have the potential to open up 2 million job opportunities for disabled people in the U.S. and save $19 billion in annual healthcare expenditures, chiefly by cutting the 35,000 deaths on U.S. roads each year by 90 percent and ensuring the old and disabled do not miss medical appointments due to inadequate transport.
AVs have the potential to open up 2 million job opportunities for disabled people in the U.S. and save $19 billion in annual healthcare expenditures, chiefly by cutting the 35,000 deaths on U.S. roads each year by 90 percent and ensuring the old and disabled do not miss medical appointments due to inadequate transport.
However, the report also found that these benefits will only be realized if the disability community begins engaging with AV developers in the near term and establishes a coalition of aligned interests, sticking to the principles of universal design—standards of production that prioritize making products that are inherently accessible to the elderly, the disabled, and people without disabilities—wherever possible. The report further stresses that federal, state and local AV pilot programs must focus on increasing independence and enhanced mobility for the disability community and aging population.
The report includes several recommendations for the public and private sectors to improve the development of autonomous vehicles for the disabilities community. This includes suggesting that governments avoid requiring fully autonomous vehicles to have a licensed driver in them to operate. Regulations such as these would prevent many Americans with mobility issues the opportunity to use self-driving cars for everyday activities, such as commuting, visiting friends and family, and taking part more fully in society.
“Autonomous vehicles can spark the greatest positive change in our society since the industrial revolution,” said Robbie Diamond, President and CEO of SAFE. “In addition to the tremendous energy security benefits, it’s exciting that this technology will improve quality of life and boost employment access for millions of Americans with disabilities, from veterans to the elderly to people born with health challenges, which is why SAFE looks forward to continuing its work to ensure that AVs are deployed as soon and as safely as possible. My own daughter has mobility challenges and I can personally understand how self-driving will change her life for the better.”
In terms of technical development and government oversight, the report advised that manufacturers of the technology should design SAE level 4 products—the second-highest technological level of autonomy, which can perform all the functions required for an entire journey—that offer access as soon as technically feasible, while also gathering input from the disability community during pilot programs. The U.S. Department of Transportation should also start a continuing dialogue around the design, testing and deployment of AVs, and should conduct further research on the transportation needs of people with disabilities for the community to fully benefit from the technology.
“Self-driving vehicles have the potential to significantly improve transportation, employment, access to healthcare, and simply general inclusion of people with disabilities,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “This is why, as developers move to create fully autonomous vehicles, it is imperative that the disability community be fully included and consulted in every step of developing and mainstreaming this new technology.”
“Technology has finally made this dream of a fully inclusive transportation system possible and it is on us to do what we can to make this a reality and uphold the values of one of our most historic legislations, the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The report’s authors also noted a legal commitment to be upheld as autonomous vehicles are developed. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that if a private company offers such transportation services, equal access to public accommodations must be made to provide the same services to people with disabilities as those without.
“Technology has finally made this dream of a fully inclusive transportation system possible and it is on us to do what we can to make this a reality and uphold the values of one of our most historic legislations, the Americans with Disabilities Act,” concluded Ruderman.