The disabled community is excited about the possibilities of self-driving cars. The freedom and flexibility that cars provide is often out of reach for many people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has yet to release even a draft of the operational regulations or a timeline for when the rules will be complete. We are concerned the delay is slowing the pace toward transportation that promises to revolutionize our freedom of movement.
While public transportation has improved since the passage 25 years ago of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is not uncommon for wheelchair and walker users, as well as those using guide dogs, to be left waiting for multiple trains or buses because the lift is out of order or there simply is no more room.
Paratransit systems are a significant improvement as an alternative to public transit, but they don’t usually offer on-demand service. Most systems require reservations 24 to 48 hours in advance, limit travel within a single county and force sharing rides with other passengers. Getting anyplace on time is iffy at best.
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While people with disabilities stand to benefit more than most from the self-driving car, we will all benefit from reductions in traffic congestion, accidents and air pollution. Self-driving cars also promise a new era of economic growth for California and will open up employment possibilities for people with disabilities, who find it difficult to travel to jobs.
California is the cradle of this new technology. All the big global auto manufacturers have testing and development facilities in the Bay Area. Mercedes recently announced a self-driving car testing partnership with Contra Costa County. Tesla says some of its vehicles would have self-driving features this summer. And Google is already testing cars near its headquarters in Mountain View.
People in this state will be among the first to benefit from this innovation. The first person Google invited to ride in its self-driving car outside its campus was a blind Californian, Steve Mahan.
Of course, the technology will not transform our lives overnight. The first cars will almost certainly not be able to fit power wheelchairs, for example. But eventually this technology will be available to all.
In 2012, California laid claim to global leadership on self-driving cars when the Assembly passed a law – Senate Bill 1298 – directing the DMV to write regulations to govern the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2015. However, it has failed to do so. As a result, it has left us to only imagine how our lives and our community could be transformed by cars that drive themselves.
Teresa Favuzzi is executive director of Sacramento-based California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.