For Carol Tyson, a recent proposal that would advance the commercialization of self-driving vehicles brought familiar pangs of frustration.
Like so many others, Tyson, an advocate for people with disabilities, believes autonomous transportation holds the potential to unlock newfound independence and mobility for millions of Americans. However, blueprints for that future are missing vital components, namely vehicle designs and regulatory frameworks that address considerations for riders with disabilities.
Transportation leaders have a long history of neglecting the needs of people with disabilities, and advocates such as Tyson grew alarmed again in October when the California Public Utilities Commission issued a proposal that would have allowed autonomous vehicle operators to charge fares and offer shared trips: At least at the outset, it did not include disability access requirements.
“Promises of mobility access that could literally transform disabled people’s lives without plans or real commitments to safety, accessibility and equity is infuriating,” said Tyson, a government affairs liaison with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. “It does not engender trust that the ‘mobility revolution’ will benefit everyone.”
But that’s exactly what industry executives and government leaders have promised. They’ve touted autonomous vehicles as a dramatically safer means of transportation, a tool for ensuring that the more than 25 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities can better access mobility. People with disabilities are encouraged by the vision. Now, they’re waiting.
While self-driving technology has been under development for more than a decade, concrete efforts to deliver an accessible future have only recently begun in earnest.
Prominent among them is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge, which offers $5 million in prize money to innovators. The department sought applications between April and October and is expected to select semifinalists in a matter of weeks.
But with test fleets of autonomous vehicles already populating roads in larger numbers and regulators considering rules that do not address accessibility, Tyson laments that people with disabilities have already been left behind.
“The reason I don’t feel better is because we have companies testing and deploying across the country, and none of them are accessible. No city or state even requires an accessibility plan,” she said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”
AVs could extend independence for older adults
Initial steps underway
For people with disabilities, “transportation” can too often be synonymous with “roadblock.”
Three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, problems remain, from ensuring subway stations are accessible to compelling public transit agencies to ensure buses come equipped with wheelchair lifts. The arrival of ride-hailing services brought a more contemporary challenge for equitable services.
In a 2017 National Household Travel Survey conducted by the Federal Highway Administration, 7 of 10 respondents with disabilities said they reduce their day-to-day travel because of transportation hindrances.
Advocates for disabled people say the ADA offers little in terms of prevention. It’s up to people with disabilities to report violations, file complaints and ultimately file lawsuits. Autonomous vehicles are merely the latest chapter in their fight. If there’s a lesson to be learned from earlier experiences, experts say it’s that action should be taken now to ensure opportunity later.
Advocates this year praised Toyota for its outreach efforts. The automaker provided aftermarket mobility manufacturers early access to its 2021 Sienna minivan.
“Improvements in access are not going to happen automatically,” said Marjory Blumenthal, senior policy researcher at RAND Corp., a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group. “It’s not an unrecognized problem, but it does require a specific effort if we’re going to fulfill that promise.”
Given the time it takes to design and build vehicle platforms, and timelines for offering passenger-carrying autonomous services, the clock is ticking. A 2019 report from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America emphasizes the importance of striking “while the iron is hot” and nudges the auto industry toward making vehicles designed for accessibility, not ones that need retrofit solutions.
“History has shown that retrofitting accessibility features onto conventional vehicles is expensive and complicated and can sometimes compromise occupant protection and passenger safety for the sake of usability,” Intelligent Transportation Society researchers wrote.
For personally owned vehicles on the road today, the average wheelchair user can spend $10,000 to $30,000 on top of the cost of the vehicle, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Yet, with the exception of Local Motors, a maker of 3D-printed self-driving shuttles, the report says no automated vehicle manufacturer has emphasized a ground-up design that supports accessibility.
Failure to adopt universal designs, the report says, “would be a tremendous lost opportunity” for the auto and tech industries.
Toyota, VW get high marks
Some automotive and tech companies have pushed further afield.
A scorecard released by the American Association of People with Disabilities and another advocacy group, We Will Ride, in June hails Toyota Motor Corp. for its “extensive” outreach to the community and says it has provided aftermarket mobility manufacturers early access to the 2021 Sienna minivan.
Volkswagen created its Inclusive Mobility program in May 2019 and is coordinating with a variety of advocacy groups on innovations at an in-house design studio in the Bay Area. General Motors and Cruise have partnered with the National Federation of the Blind and other groups to work on accessibility issues in the Bay Area, according to the scorecard.
In 2019, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the industry’s largest lobbying group, hosted three workshops that assessed passenger-vehicle transportation, new technologies and their potential impact. Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a coalition of companies working on AVs, has conducted workshops and compiled a repository of information on the subject.
The American Association of People with Disabilities report ultimately concluded “no member of the industry is close to achieving production of an accessible light-duty passenger vehicle right now” and acknowledged COVID-19 has likely sapped momentum and revenue streams that would fund such R&D projects.
Actual mobility, economic mobility
Besides equality, there’s an economic component to transportation accessibility.
America wastes $19 billion annually on medical appointments missed because 4.3 million people with disabilities cannot access reliable transportation, according to a 2017 report, “Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People With Disabilities,” issued by Securing America’s Future Energy, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, and the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Further, people with disabilities have difficulty reaching jobs that others can easily access. A subsequent report released by the think tank in July found employment growth areas in the modern economy are largely inaccessible to them. In one example, the report said Amazon’s 60 largest U.S. fulfillment centers are inaccessible to anyone who cannot commute there via a personally owned vehicle.
That’s indicative of a broader barrier. Three-quarters of people without disabilities ages 18 to 64 work either part time or full time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In contrast, only 20 percent of people with travel-limiting disabilities in the same age group work.
“The No. 1 indicator of economic mobility is actual mobility,” said Robbie Diamond, CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy.
The Intelligent Transportation Society report found overall U.S. vehicle miles traveled could increase as much as 14 percent per year if older adults and people with disabilities gained access to transportation via AVs.
Toward that end, Diamond said the federal government will likely need to affirm the rights of people with disabilities, whether in awaited federal legislation that addresses the autonomous vehicle future or in changes to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that could permit more innovative vehicle designs.
Currently, auto and tech companies can apply for exemptions from safety standards, but Diamond said that’s a stopgap for solving the problem. Much like the creation of the interstate highway system catalyzed economic growth, he foresees accessible transportation as a means to harness the potential of millions of Americans at a time of rising global competition.
“We are living in a revolutionary transportation time,” Diamond said. “Allowing unique designs and a total rethink of what a vehicle can be is the most important thing that can solve for both environmental factors and provide mobility for those who don’t have it. We have to get to that point. This is the profound missing link that we’ve been talking about.”
After the California Public Utilities Commission issued its AV proposal in October, leaders at the Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund implored regulators to rethink their proposal in a way that would address accessibility concerns.
“Retrofitting vehicles would be more expensive for providers in the long run,” representatives of the fund wrote in their public comments. “Autonomous vehicles should be born accessible.”
On Nov. 19, regulators added reporting requirements that compel permit holders to submit quarterly reports that describe their outreach to disabled riders and acknowledge whether they’ve incorporated any feedback into their services. Then they approved the proposal, paving the way for AV companies to charge for commercial service.
Given California’s role in setting the regulatory tone for industry developments, advocates for disabled people are hopeful that other states will take notice and incorporate similar provisions in their own efforts. It’s far short of a guarantee of accessibility but at least an acknowledgment of both the concerns and potential that exist.
“Another baby step toward accessibility,” Tyson said. “I hope policymakers nationwide will take notice. I’d challenge them to set even higher standards.”