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Disability advocates to regulators: Consider us when making self-driving laws

The reality is: Disability advocacy groups may be the best allies auto and tech companies will find in the push for a national regulatory framework for self-driving cars.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Without fail, auto and tech companies start every conversation about self-driving cars with statistics. Whether they’re floating the average number of traffic fatalities a year (33,000) or the number of lives saved by vehicle safety technology (613,501), their point is always: Enhanced vehicle technology saves lives.

But while the ultimate goal of reducing traffic fatalities and injuries through self-driving technology is certainly admirable (and ambitious!), the immediate benefits those with disabilities could reap from self-driving technologies are often treated as a secondary part of the conversation.

The reality is, disability advocacy groups may be the best allies auto and tech companies will find in the push for a national regulatory framework for self-driving cars.

At a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration public meeting on Wednesday to discuss planned guidelines for self-driving cars, several disability advocates reminded the agency as well as stakeholders that self-driving technology has the potential to give people with disabilities immediate and never-before-seen access to mobility, and thus they should be considered during the rule-making process, not after.

“Without explicit inclusion of accessibility in the development of technology, their potential for bringing independence and increasing inclusion diminishes,” Susan Henderson of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund argued. “For example, equal access to the internet for people who are blind and deaf and have other disabilities was not considered by web developers at first, and many people with disabilities experienced unnecessary obstacles to information — and still do.”

In a move that was initially praised as a sign of progress, the California DMV drafted regulations that would allow self-driving cars on public roads only if they were outfitted with a steering wheel and there was a licensed driver behind the wheel that could take over as a fail-safe. Disability advocates argue that although mass deployment of self-driving cars may be years away, these regulations already preclude blind, deaf, elderly and developmentally disabled people from freely accessing the technology.

“The promise of the technology will only be realized if it’s truly accessible to people with disabilities,” Henderson said, “and [if] the laws and policies developed by state and federal governments do not present unnecessary restrictions. NHTSA’s model state policies for [autonomous vehicle] operating or licensing users must preclude discrimination on the basis of disability by states or any government entity.”

It’s a stance that a company like Google — which does not have steering wheels in its fully autonomous cars so as to avoid introducing human error — can get behind. And it’s why automakers developing level four (fully automated) cars may soon align themselves closely with disability advocates.

But it’s not just the regulators that need to consider people with disabilities from Day One. Auto and tech companies also have to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities in developing the design, hardware and software of self-driving cars.

“As auto manufacturers and technology companies develop fully autonomous vehicles, we envision that they are designed from the get-go as accessible,” Teresa Favuzzi, the executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, said. “We envision a time [when] we can purchase a car and not have to have it modified afterwards. We envision at time when transportation network companies are no longer dependent on the inaccessible vehicles of their drivers.”

“Developing accessible fully autonomous vehicles is the real transportation game-changer here,” she concluded.

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