In 2011, a blind man got into the driver’s seat of a car and drove independently on the road course at the Daytona International Speedway. The car was developed by Torc and Virginia Tech for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)’s Blind Driver Challenge™—an initiative to build technology that will provide a blind person with enough real-time information to drive a car.
The event demonstrated how vehicle technology could provide transportation independence to those who currently cannot drive. As self-driving car development has progressed, advocate groups, technology companies, and government associations are considering what the technology could do for the 53 million adults in the United States who live with a disability.
Autonomous vehicles show great promise for making our roads safer and decreasing congestion. They also have the potential to provide transportation to millions of people who need it.
Current Transportation Challenges
According to a whitepaper from Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and the Ruderman Family Foundation, approximately 40 percent of people who report difficulties accessing transportation have disabilities. This transportation challenge can drastically affect their independence, employment opportunities, and quality of life.
Currently, vehicle retrofits provide some people with disabilities the opportunity to drive. These retrofits, however, do not help those with visual impairments or diseases like epilepsy. Additionally, retrofits are often expensive, costing between $20,000 and $80,000.
The SAFE and Ruderman Family Foundation study concluded that autonomous vehicles could provide approximately 2 million people with new opportunities for employment through access to transportation. Additionally, the increased mobility could save $19 billion in annual health care costs from missed appointments.
These benefits of self-driving cars could also assist the growing elderly population in the United States. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety predicts that the number of drivers over 65 will increase dramatically in the next three decades.
Designing for Everyone
Two factors should be considered to ensure self-driving cars provide transportation for more people: design and policy.
When self-driving cars advance to the point where drivers no longer need to pay attention and control the vehicle, a wealth of opportunities open up for interior vehicle design. Rather than designing around the steering wheel and pedals, new designs could allow for more space to accommodate wheelchairs or easy exit and entry.
Designing user interfaces equipped with both audio and visual commands could allow people with sight or hearing issues to interact with the car independently. It is important for companies creating self-driving cars to consider the wide variety of people that could use this technology, and to design for greater mobility.
As lawmakers push for national regulations on self-driving cars, the SAFE and Ruderman Family Foundation paper recommends that we reconsider certain policies, like requiring a licensed driver to be in the car, to accommodate people with disabilities. Government funding for self-driving car programs should include research into policies that benefit the millions of people living with disabilities.
The paper includes recommendations that encourage all segments of the community to come together to push for policies that enable mobility for people who need access to better transportation, and to work with state departments of motor vehicles to evaluate the local needs of individuals with disabilities.
As we develop the future of autonomous vehicles, we should strive for a future with universal access to transportation.