On October 26, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) co-hosted an information-gathering session, “Autonomous Vehicles: Driving Employment for People with Disabilities.” Thirty organizations representing older Americans and people with disabilities participated. Steve Owens MD, MPH, MA, vice president of programs and services at the Epilepsy Foundation, represented the interests of people with epilepsy at the session.
Read ODEP's meeting summary
What are autonomous vehicles?
An autonomous vehicle (AV) is a machine that operates and travels without the need of a physical driver. In theory, an autonomous vehicle should be able to drive, change lanes, steer, brake, and park without human assistance.
AVs pose a potential solution to some of the hardships people living with disabilities face daily, including lack of accessible transportation that makes it difficult to travel to work and hold a job.
"The information-gathering session brought together many stakeholders for the disability community," said Dr. Owens.
Particularly for the epilepsy community, this was an opportunity for us to interface with other people who may experience challenges with transportation — Dr. Owens
Could AVs improve the lives of people living with disabilities?
Lack of transportation is a common challenge faced by people living with epilepsy. Licensing laws vary by state, but many require a person living with epilepsy to be free from seizures for a period of time before they are allowed to drive. People living with epilepsy often must use other ways to get around, such as depending on family and friends, public transportation, or mobility services, like taxis or community transportation services. Holding a job, spending time with friends, attending medical appointments, and shopping for necessities can be difficult.
I believe AVs would definitely change the way people living with epilepsy would be able to integrate with other aspects of society — Dr. Owens
"Opportunities for employment, ability to decrease social isolation, ability to interact with others, or even go to healthcare appointments would open up," Dr. Owens continued.
Recommendations for Accessibility
Participants at the information-gathering session discussed options to ensure AVs are safe and accessible to people of all abilities. Options to increase accessibility of AVs included:
- Wheelchair lifts and ramps for the vehicle
- Sidewalks, bus stops, and curb cuts to make wheelchair movement easier
- Clear and simple instructions
- Sound and visual cues to help people living with autism or cognitive disabilities use AVs
- Customizing the vehicle for individuals who have multiple disabilities
The Importance of Collaboration
To make vehicles accessible, participants discussed the importance of collaboration among the DOT, AV developers, software engineers, and the disability community. Participants stressed that cooperation and input was needed from the beginning to the end of AV development.
Mobility as a Service
Mobility as a Service is the idea of considering the entire way someone travels from door to door. Therefore, planning for the ways a user might get access to an AV and making those means of transportation accessible is critical. Collaboration between AV companies and other means of transportation to ensure the entire route is accessible is necessary.
Many transportation options, while available, are too expensive and physically inaccessible for people with disabilities, especially in rural areas. These issues highlight the need for subsidies for use of AVs in rural areas and technology (like smart phones) that connect people with transportation options.
AVs in Rural Communities
Participants expressed the need for AVs to pick up where other modes of transportation are lacking. Ways to get around, where to find accessible transportation, and when it’s available are often more limited in rural areas. Since rural areas have fewer traffic lights, road signs and buildings along routes, it may be easier for AVs to drive in these areas. However, rural areas also have weaker business profit potential and less broadband access that is needed for the AVs to work. Options like incentives, co-op models and broadband improvements should be explored.
Safety and Training
A big issue in the mainstream use of AVs is a lack of trust in self-operating machinery. Safety concerns include:
- GPS errors
- Seating arrangements that work for various types of disabilities
- Service animal protection
- Crash testing, including for wheelchair users
- Remote operators who can step in and assist in emergencies
- User training
- Specific AV licensing and how that could impact people with disabilities, like active seizure, who are not allowed to drive
One of my concerns is that we may not have the safety measures in place should someone have a seizure while they are in one of these autonomous vehicles — Dr. Owens.
"Although other safeguards may be in place, such as cameras that are able to view and see where the vehicles go, there will not be a person physically there in the autonomous vehicle to support someone who may have a seizure," Dr. Owens continued.
ODEP will continue to collaborate with other government agencies to look at how AVs could bridge transportation gaps for people living with disabilities and help them enter the workforce. Organizations can participate in future information gathering sessions and in the online community at transportationinnovation.ideascale.com.
Autonomous vehicles may present a tremendous opportunity to better the lives of people living with disabilities. Safety measures, and accessible features and infrastructure, must be taken into consideration to make autonomous vehicles disability-friendly. Collaboration among government regulators, the disability community, and AV developers is key to ensuring the needs of people living with various disabilities are met.