Driverless cars promise far greater mobility for people with disabilities

|     Ashley Halsey III, The Washington Post     |

THEY are too old to drive safely or cannot see well enough or otherwise have sound reason to fear climbing behind the wheel of a car. For them, a future when vehicles drive themselves promises unprecedented freedom.

This is a good-news story, but one that comes replete with the caveats and worries that people who have traditionally been cut out of the transportation equation – in part or entirely – continue to harbour.

“We are concerned that certain populations will not be able to benefit from this technology if very specific design issues are not addressed,” said Henry Claypool, a policy consultant to the American Association of People with Disabilities and co-author of a paper that gauges the potential impact of self-driving cars on the community.

The Trump administration and both chambers of Congress are trying to strike a balance between allowing unfettered design development and prudent regulation for an industry that already has test fleets on the road in many states, including some without a backup driver behind the wheel.

“Whether it’s because of General Motors ignition switches, Takata air bags or Volkswagen emissions software, consumers are not necessarily going to immediately trust auto companies,” William Wallace of the Consumers Union said in arguing for more-stringent federal oversight this month at a forum held by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

More than 60 million people are hearing or vision impaired, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of elderly who no longer drive is not certain, but as the baby-boom generation ages, it is bound to swell. In addition, an estimated 3.5 million Americans have some form of autism, and about 400,000 have Down syndrome. These groups also stand to benefit from the new technology.

Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, was the first non-Google employee to ride alone in the company’s gumdrop-shaped autonomous car. The ride was in October 2015 in Austin. Advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities say the technology could give them unprecedented freedom. – WP-BLOOM

“Autonomous vehicles will mean significantly more independence for the Down syndrome community,” said Ashley Helsing, director of government relations at the National Down Syndrome Society. “Transportation is a huge barrier for employment of people with Down syndrome.”

The allure of fully autonomous cars is immense for those who have felt trapped by four walls, consigned to the vagaries of public transit or otherwise constrained by circumstance of their disability.

“While blind people get around by using mass transit and other things, we don’t have the flexibility the autonomous vehicles will present,” said John G Paré Jr, executive director for advocacy and policy at the National Federation of the Blind.

But questions abound among people with disabilities on how autonomous cars will be designed and whether they will provide the promised mobility. Those issues are being raised in discussions with designers, automakers and federal regulators.

Will autonomous vehicles be wheelchair accessible, and will wheelchairs be able to roll into them so their occupants need not transfer to a seat in the vehicle? Will there be tactile and audio interface so that the visually impaired can track the vehicle’s progress? How about a way for the blind to adjust things such as air conditioning and the radio? How will the vehicles be summoned and given a destination?

“Every time I read about self-driving cars, I wonder whether people who don’t hear well and depend on lip-reading would have any way of telling the car what to do,” said Marjorie C Younglof, a Virginia woman who has been profoundly deaf since birth but hears with two cochlear implants. “Believe me, deaf people – those deaf from birth, in particular – can be very hard to understand when they speak.”

Waymo, the company that began its life as Google’s autonomous-car division, launched its quest for fully autonomous vehicles before most of its current flock of competitors left the starting gate. Its driverless cars have driven 3.5 million miles in 22 test cities, including one in Austin where a blind man successfully completed a test ride alone.

This month, the company said it would take the next step in its testing: removing the human from behind the wheel as its Level 4 cars motor around Arizona. (A Level 4 vehicle is designed to come to a safe stop, should anything go wrong, without driver intervention.) – WP-BLOOM