Vehículo autónomo
Self-driving car

Autonomous driving and accessibility - Widening horizons

12 of January of 2024

What is autonomous driving?

Autonomous driving can be defined as “the capability of a car to drive partly or fully by itself, with limited or no human intervention”. Different levels of autonomy can be distinguished. Conditional and High automation correspond to level 3 and level 4 vehicles, respectively. Level 5 vehicles incorporate automated systems that can perform the full range of functions and driving modes a human driver is capable of, including steering, acceleration/deceleration, monitoring the driving environment and controlling all aspects of driving.

For a vehicle to drive itself partially or completely, the main interface of the vehicle must be able to coordinate and successfully perform functions in three key areas: safety, connectivity and autonomous driving systems.

People with disabilities and transport

According to the World Health Organization, over a billion people, i.e. 16% of the world’s population, have some kind of disability. Approximately 46% of people aged 60 or older suffer from some kind of disability, and more than 250 million older adults have moderate to severe disabilities.

Travelling independently is often a challenge for people with disabilities, older people and those with reduced mobility. They may suffer from physical or psychiatric impediments, their driving skills may have deteriorated, or there may be no public transport options where they live. And, even if there are public transport options, they may not be accessible for this type of user. According to a representative survey of adults with disabilities in the United States, 34% of respondents claimed to have problems with access to transport.

Within the different modes of transport, public transport is essential for people of all ages and backgrounds to lead a full and satisfactory life. All these limitations faced by people who are disabled significantly hinder their access to essential services and their ability to live independently. Autonomous driving thus emerges as a promising option allows users with different limitations and needs to aspire to a more autonomous and inclusive future.

Making transport more accessible for people with disabilities

The main advantage of autonomous vehicles, and perhaps the most obvious, is that it enables users who cannot drive because of a disability to do so, because, in most cases, there will be no steering wheel and, even if there is, it will not be essential to use it. The absence of a steering wheel or dashboard will allow vehicles to be built with wider doors and flat floors for people using support devices, or make more space available for installing adaptive user interfaces for people with different skills and needs. Moreover, if the vehicle’s interior can be customized easily, this could be useful for blind or partially-sighted people who cannot drive; apart from being able to get around more quickly and independently, they could adapt much more comfortably and quickly to the vehicle.

Autonomous driving will allow users with disabilities to recover the independence they have lost, due to their limitations or needs. Being able to travel freely without depending on family, friends or others will help to increase the autonomy of these users. The new independence provided by autonomous driving can considerably facilitate access to essential services such as healthcare or education and can even influence decisions on where to live, as people with disabilities or reduced mobility will have a much wider range of housing options. As well as facilitating access to essential services, autonomous driving will give them the opportunity to maintain an active social life and participate in recreational activities, which will lead to greater social inclusion and community participation and enhance their emotional and mental well-being.

Autonomous driving can also facilitate access to employment and educational opportunities by providing a flexible and accessible means of transport, eliminating barriers for more active participation in society. In 2022, a study carried out by the National Disability Institute predicted that autonomous vehicles could help many people who are disabled to leave their homes and get jobs.

In 2017, a White Paper financed by the Ruderman Family Foundation on the impact of autonomous driving on people with disabilities estimated that this technology could lead to savings on healthcare of up to $19 billion if we take into account the appointments they cannot attend because of transport problems.

Another major benefit of autonomous driving for people with disabilities is that of making travel more relaxed and less stressful, with fewer worries about driving. They will be able to make long journeys without the fatigue associated with driving, and will be able to plan trips according to their individual needs and schedules. These advantages help to reduce emotional stress, which is directly linked to a better quality of life.

Last, but not least, autonomous driving has the potential to significantly reduce the likelihood of accidents due to human error, especially benefiting people with disabilities and the elderly, who may well be more vulnerable to injury in car accidents.

Autonomous mobility Initiatives for people with disabilities

Among the most recent initiatives, Waymo is undoubtedly ahead of the field. A company dedicated to autonomous driving that launched the first autonomous vehicle service in the world, it currently serves the American cities of Phoenix and San Francisco; and it will soon operate in Los Angeles and Austin. The Californian company has created the Waymo Accessibility Network, which is directly associated with organizations that support people of all ages with physical, visual, cognitive and sensory disabilities. Currently, the network consists of 15 organizations, but it will most probably expand in the coming years.

Sahl Kazi, a 20-year-old young woman with a visual disability who cannot drive, published a video on the TikTok platform where she described her experiences as a person with visual disabilities and explained how she wanted autonomous cars to happen, so she could have more freedom to do things with friends and family. One of her videos went viral and came to the attention of Waymo. Since then, Waymo and Sahl have been liaising actively, with Sahl appearing as a speaker at in-house meetings, helping with tests and taking part in educational initiatives. I feel like visually impaired people, or people with any disadvantage, are always an afterthought. But we’re getting there, slowly but surely, with the work that Waymo is doing. The autonomous driving technology that Waymo is putting the effort to bring forth, and to normalize, and to make accessible, is absolutely huge.” And “In the end, just being able to get where you need to go, it might seem as simple as that, but deep down it’s a new sense of security, it’s a new sense of liberation. It’s finally happening. That’s why it’s so special.” These are two of Sahl’s most memorable sentences in her latest appearances.

In October 2022, May Mobility, a technology developer for autonomous driving, and Via, a transport technology provider, worked together on the goMarti project to launch a fleet of autonomous vehicles that were accessible by wheelchair in Grand Rapids (Minnesota), creating the first public transport program to use autonomous driving systems in accordance with the American Disability Act in a rural area of the United States. The project has been a great success and the ability of autonomous vehicles to transform the journeys of people with disabilities has been evident to the participants.

The University of Michigan, a pioneer in autonomous driving research, has launched a pilot program with May Mobility (Detroit ADS), in which three hybrid shuttles will operate for approximately 50 hours a week, providing a service for about one hundred people in Detroit who have disabilities or are over 65.  All vehicles will comply with the US Disability Act and can carry wheelchairs. In the first stages of the program, each vehicle will have a qualified safety operator on board, who will be available to answer questions and help users with wheelchairs when they board and leave the shuttle.

The future of autonomous driving and people with disabilities

Autonomous driving can bring about a major revolution in the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities, the elderly and those with reduced mobility. As we advance towards the future, we begin to glimpse great opportunities and significant improvements in the quality of life of these users, thanks to the elimination of barriers to access essential services and the creation of opportunities for them to play an active role in work and education.

Although we may celebrate the progress currently being made, it is essential for studies of autonomous technology to continue, not only dealing with vehicles and their characteristics, but also with the journey as a whole. Accessible design solutions for autonomous systems must be adapted to the needs, circumstances and preferences of each group; and future research involving different groups with disabilities should include more engineering studies and higher quality prospective experimental studies to assess the results of accessibility. A community of practices based on stakeholder engagement will accelerate the development and deployment of inclusive accessible autonomous systems and services, which will benefit everyone.

A crucial aspect in the future of autonomous driving for disabled people will be the legal regulations established by each government. Governments can play a very important role in vehicle regulation and in ensuring that vehicles are accessible for the disabled. Political leaders should work with these groups and the autonomous mobility industry to develop regulations that promote accessible design, as autonomous vehicles are deployed, and ensure that these advances benefit everyone equitably and ethically.

In short, the future of autonomous driving and its impact on people with disabilities, the elderly and those with reduced mobility is promising, but there is still a long way to go for these advances to be implemented globally and made available to everyone.

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