Autonomous Cars Could Drive Up Opportunities for the Disabled

By: Bridget Clerkin October 31, 2017
Autonomous vehicles could prove a boon to drivers and passengers with disabilities.
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Self-driving cars may be able to change landscapes, but the technology also has the power to change lives.

The transformative transportation could lend some of its autonomy to the elderly or those with disabilities, freeing people who experience mental or physical difficulties from dependence upon other drivers, public transit, or expensive vehicle modifications.

Still, the new-age autos can offer much more than a bit of Sunday driving for those who otherwise can’t ride solo. They can help ensure that members of the disabled community can more easily find—and keep—a job.

And their total impact could be huge.

A More Even Playing Field

Nearly 57 million people—or 19% of the U.S. population—had a disability of some sort in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The numbers include those affected by a wide range of complications, from blindness and paralysis to ADHD and autism, and at least 3.8 million of those surveyed were veterans who suffered a disability from their service.

But despite their differences, the community had a common concern: up to 68% reported transportation as a difficult issue, surveys by the National Institute of Health found.

And without a reliable way to get around, following the rigid schedule of a job can be next to impossible. (In many ways, it’s tantamount to a permanently suspended license—a condition which can cause its own vicious cycle of poverty.)

Nearly 57 million people—or 19% of the U.S. population—had a disability of some sort in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. 

On average, people with disabilities earned about $1,000 less per month than those who don’t, the 2010 Census data found. But offering autonomous rides to the population could help alleviate such disparity.

Eliminating the transportation issue would open up nearly 2 million new employment opportunities for those with disabilities, research by the Ruderman Family Foundation found. And greater individual control over driving time could help save $19 billion annually in healthcare costs related to missed medical appointments, according to the study.

With that tremendous potential in mind, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the nonprofit Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) put together an online forum for interested parties to discuss the issue. And while the dialogue is still ongoing, the groups have already begun to develop some ideas.

Questions, Comments, Concerns?

Chief among the apprehensions listed by participants in the forum was the capability of the cars to address the needs for all disabilities.

Commenters were especially concerned with the widespread move toward touch-screen technology in the vehicles, which they worried could prove difficult to manage for the blind or those with certain ambulatory restrictions.

Automakers will have to ensure that their vehicles come with not just manual but also verbal override options, the group suggested. On top of that, the audio-based commands will have to be recognized when spoken in different languages, accents, and with speech impediments, the survey notes. (Still, so far at least one blind man has piloted an autonomous car, and he happily reported the experience was like “driving with a very good driver.”)

Wheelchair accessibility was another big area of concern for the forum, especially in light of the fact that most self-driving cars will likely get their start through ride-hail services. Fetching a wheelchair-accessible ride is already difficult, respondents said, but without the help of a driver, getting inside the car could prove to be even trickier.

But some companies are already working on ways to alleviate the issue, including Robotic Research, which recently released plans for a new ROARS system that uses voice command to activate everything from the automatic door opener to the wheelchair lift and securement system to safety switches.

Maryland-based automotive technology firm Robotic Research is working on a system it calls ROARS with can help a wheelchair-bound passenger board a vehicle without human assistance.

And while many in the forum wondered how or if the federal government would help disseminate such vehicles, overall they expressed the feeling that the transit situation could only get better.

Can’t Get No Worse

As of now, people with disabilities have very little choice when it comes to getting around.

Without a reliable ride from friends or family, many turn to paratransit for help instead. Mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the system must be offered by all public transportation agencies. Essentially, it provides the services of specialized vehicles and specially-trained drivers to help members of the disabled community become more mobile.

But as well-intentioned as the idea may be, the system is currently riddled with issues.

Drivers must pre-arrange a pick-up time and location and pay for each ride reservation they make. Yet rates for the service keep rising.

As of 2010, the last year for which data is available, each trip in a paratransit vehicle cost about $30, on average. That charge is nearly 3.5 times more expensive than a regular fixed route, according to a study put together by the Government Office of Accountability.

Likewise, the cost of offering the service has spiked—up 10% between 2007 and 2010 alone—but the number of those in need of paratransit also increased over the same time period, by about 7%.

One thing that hasn’t changed much over that time is the amount of federal funding coming in for the companies—and as a result, many have scaled back services, routes, or pick-up locations.

Still, the dawn of automated vehicles could be a bright one for the industry—and especially for those it serves, who may finally get the chance to experience true autonomy.

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