On November 2, 2015, the National Council on Disability (NCD) released Self-Driving Cars: Mapping Access to a Technology Revolution. The report observes that Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are an opportunity for people with disabilities to increase their autonomy and economic development. This technology can be used by the disability community on an individual basis or by expanding current public transportation systems. Public transportation can incorporate AVs in predetermined “closed-looped” routes. AVs represent powerful opportunities to increase workplace participation by reducing or minimizing the barrier that transportation represents to a number of disability types. Knowing that one is more likely to be able to get to the workplace with certainty can reduce the anxiety related uncertainty with arrival times.
It is important to proactively include stakeholders within the disability community in AV design and development to enhance the utility of this technology for people with disabilities. Coordination among pertinent federal agencies is one approach to facilitate this engagement. This could also be achieved by encouraging industry outreach to key stakeholders in the disability community.
Equally important is increased participation in rulemakings concerning the regulatory environment under which these technologies will be governed and engaging policy makers now so that when technology is ready, it will have been designed to be inclusive of people with disabilities. In a letter to Google from the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC), the Commission seems to accept classifying the artificial intelligence (AI) in autonomous vehicles as a “driver”. According to Google, there AV “is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.” If NHTSC’s acknowledgement and agreement that computers can be classified as drivers is codified in law and policy, then people who are blind and low vision could own and operate an AV so long as the interface for the navigation and destination input was designed to be accessible. This is an area that needs to be monitored closely by designers of accessible interfaces, disability advocates and legislative and regulatory policy analysts and influencers.