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How Self-Driving Cars Could Transform Travel for People With Disabilities

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

I recently had the opportunity to take a ride in a self-driving bus when my local city government hosted a test for EasyMile, a French autonomous vehicle maker. The EZ10 driverless bus has a variety of sensors to detect and react to potential obstacles such as cars and pedestrians. and there’s no steering wheel or other driving controls — though it can be started and stopped by an operator. It can travel up to 25 mph along a pre-programmed route, and is designed for what the transportation industry calls first mile, last mile trips — taking passengers from their homes or workplaces to bus or train stations where they can board fixed route transit to their destination.

I was fortunate enough to be among the second group of bus riders. I was also the second wheelchair user; a friend’s 10-year-old daughter Zoe, who like me has cerebral palsy, was on the debut ride. As I watched her roll down the ramp in her purple power wheelchair, I thought about how within her lifetime, if not mine, self-driving vehicles will almost certainly be everywhere. Surely they will change the world, but how will they shape my future, and especially hers? For most people, autonomous vehicle technology will be a safety feature and a convenience. But for me, Zoe, and millions of other people with disabilities, self-driving cars will be life-changing.

I’m just one person, but my story illustrates why autonomous vehicles hold so much promise. As a teen, I learned to drive, but I needed a joystick control system that was extremely expensive and hard to use. I didn’t feel safe driving on the freeway, which limited where I could go, and all the equipment made it difficult for other people to drive my van. Eventually, I decided driving just wasn’t right for me. Today I’m able to go to most places and live a fairly active life, but it comes at the cost of spontaneity. Anytime I want to go somewhere, I have to make sure I have an assistant to be my driver. I’ve had to miss events I wanted to attend because I couldn’t find a driver. My access to public transportation is limited since I live in a semi-rural area and there are no bus stops near my house. So a self-driving car would be life-changing for me. I would be free to go where I want, when I want, just like everyone else, and it would make my travel blogging much easier.

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation’s white paper, “Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People With Disabilities,” autonomous vehicles could enable new employment opportunities for approximately two million individuals with disabilities, and save $19 billion annually in healthcare expenditures from missed medical appointments. Many people with disabilities would be able to have jobs when they never could before because of transportation limitations. Seniors would be able to live more independently and get to their own medical appointments without requiring expensive Medicare-funded transportation services. However, this is all contingent upon the availability and accessibility of the technology to those who need it most.

As a community, we must make our voices heard to ensure autonomous systems and the vehicles they control are designed to accommodate people with disabilities. They need to have an interface that can be used by blind individuals, have visual indicators for deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers, and be relatively simple to understand for people with intellectual disabilities and older, less tech-savvy riders. And, of course, vehicles need to be fully accessible to people who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs and scooters. The EZ10 driverless bus seems to be taking these factors into account; it has a wheelchair ramp, screens to announce upcoming stops visually and a speaker system. But to fully tap into the potential of self-driving vehicles, I believe we must rethink our entire approach to transportation, including private and for-hire vehicles.

Currently, one of the greatest barriers to transportation for people with mobility disabilities is the low-availability and high-cost of accessible vehicles. Since no major auto companies manufacture such vehicles, conversion companies have to tear apart the original vehicle and rebuild it. For example, to make a minivan like mine, a conversion company takes a standard van, rips out the brand-new floor and gas tank, and installs a new one. It’s a massive waste of money and time. As a result, the cost of a new ramp van without adaptive driving controls is $50,000 to 60,000. The cost of hand controls can range from under $200 for simple mechanical controls to $40,000 to 60,000 for high-tech systems for more significant physical impairments. State departments of vocational rehabilitation will sometimes cover the cost of adaptions, but only on new or late-model used vehicles, and only for people with disabilities who are working or seeking employment. So it’s no surprise that many people with disabilities and seniors don’t drive and can’t afford an accessible vehicle at all.

If vehicles were designed from the ground up to incorporate universal design features, the cost would be considerably less. What if a standard minivan or larger SUV was built with a lower floor, a manual or powered ramp that slides into the floor, and seats that could be easily removed to accommodate a passenger in a wheelchair? Such designs already exist and are being used for taxis in Europe. When mass-produced by the original automakers, these features would integrate favorably with the aesthetics of a vehicle and add minimal cost. Accessibility isn’t just for people who currently have disabilities; it can help everyone. Wouldn’t it be easier for parents to simply roll a stroller up a ramp instead of having to disassemble it and put it in the trunk? If a person breaks their leg and has to use crutches, wouldn’t they pull out a hidden ramp even if they had never thought about it before? What about the holidays when elderly relatives visit? How about loading that new bookshelf? If accessible vehicles could be produced for a price close to standard cars, many individuals and families would buy them and grow to love the added features they offer.

Universal design is also essential for the emerging for-hire ridesharing industry. Uber is facing widespread criticism for not offering wheelchair accessible vehicles. With their new self-driving car initiative, they could solve this problem from the beginning by making every new Uber vehicle on the road accessible. This would expand mass production of vehicles even further, bringing the cost down for everyone. I believe a significant expansion of the accessible vehicle stock could be achieved through incentives for every manufacturer to produce at least one accessible, universal design autonomous vehicle and subsidies for companies and private individuals to buy them. Over time, these subsidies would pay for themselves as people with disabilities are increasingly able to enter the workforce, keep medical appointments and live more independently.

The lives of people with disabilities have been tremendously enhanced by the technology of the past 20 years: computers, voice recognition, touch screens and smart home devices. I believe self-driving cars will be even more important to level the playing field and allow people with disabilities to participate fully in our communities. But we must speak out; we must be involved as these systems are being developed to make sure our needs are taken into account. As I look toward the future, I feel hopeful that one day Zoe won’t have to depend on other people to drive her to the places she wants to go. I see true independence and freedom on the horizon for millions of people. Let’s all do our part to make it happen.

Karin Willison will appear on the Transportation panel at the Ruderman Inclusion Summit on Nov. 19-20. Learn more and register to attend on the conference website.

Originally published: November 6, 2017
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