Soapbox

Self-driving cars could benefit people with disabilities

A Google self-driving car is displayed at Google’s I/O conference in Mountain View. California regulators are asking members of the public what they think about proposed regulations that would eventually permit self-driving cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals on public roads.
A Google self-driving car is displayed at Google’s I/O conference in Mountain View. California regulators are asking members of the public what they think about proposed regulations that would eventually permit self-driving cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals on public roads. Associated Press

Car crashes in the United States accounted for more than 35,000 lives lost in 2015 – more than 96 lives each day. The worst part is that most of these incidents are preventable. More than 80 percent of these crashes were caused by human error. That’s unacceptable in a society as technologically advanced as ours.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation have taken a bold step forward by recently announcing a federal policy for autonomous vehicles. Yes, the rapid development of self-driving vehicles could yield substantial economic and environmental benefits. However, ultimately none of these benefits can even be compared to the thousands of lives autonomous vehicles could save every year by minimizing – or even completely eliminating – errors made by human drivers.

Fully self-driving vehicles require no human intervention at all. To be foolproof, fully self-driving vehicles – also known as SAE Level 4 – exclude human drivers from the equation. The technology doesn’t merely supplement and assist people in the driving task, but takes their place entirely.

It’s not enough for technology in a vehicle to simply work as intended. The technology has to be the safety net and provide the redundancy. A 2015 NHTSA study found that some drivers took as long as 17 seconds to take control of a partially automated car after being alerted to an emergency. In that length of time, the car might have traveled a quarter-mile and possibly right into the danger the driver was alerted to avoid.

That is why many top car manufacturers, including Ford, Google and Volvo Cars, are pursuing the development and testing of fully self-driving cars that do not depend on a human to operate. These vehicles will yield the greatest improvements in road safety and, for that reason alone, they ought to be the primary focus of industry and policy efforts.

In addition to all these societal benefits is another one that is close to me personally. My college-educated, older brother Roy is in his mid-40s. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and seizures and is no longer able to drive.

He now works part time at a retail store in St. Paul, Minn. During the winter, Roy commutes by walking from his home to the bus stop, transfers to the train, then a short walk to work, which can take 45 minutes to an hour. On sub-zero days, my mom, staff members at his group home and I figure out a ride for Roy. It’s not convenient, but we’re family and we make it work.

What happens to the Roys of the world who do not have family close or access to transit or paratransit? It means deciding between having a job, going to the doctor, visiting the library or a myriad of other things most of us take for granted.

For Roy and others in his situation, a group of like-minded, passionate advocates founded Self-Driving US to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles are also fully accessible, equitable and affordable for those who stand to benefit the most, but who can least afford it – people with disabilities.

Fully self-driving vehicles could provide Roy and other people with unprecedented mobility and independence. The disabled communities risk not only missing the opportunity to access this technology, but worse, allowing fully self-driving vehicles to develop in a manner that increases transportation inequities and would further disadvantage them.

The time to leverage the safety and mobility benefits for all people is now. All big technological advances cause disruptions. But the extraordinary advances of fully self-driving cars make their development and thorough testing worthwhile and imperative.

John Doan is the executive director of Self-Driving US, a nonprofit. Contact him at john.doan@selfdrivingus.org.

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