Disability talks: our community debates the driverless gamechanger
Automated driving could change everything for those with disabilities, but according to our community, it's not the perfect solution.
Those who can’t drive themselves are very much aware of the development of driverless cars, and of course they’re excited about what it means for them. But people with disabilities also wish for reasonable prospects and their individual needs to be taken into consideration early on.
It’s a complex topic, with multiple considerations. Today, we take a closer look at some of the key points in the debate.
Where it all began
The conversation regarding driverless cars and disability began in November 2016 with an interview with UK transport consultant James Welling, who has celebral palsy.
This interview, which discussed the impact of driverless technology on people with disabilities, triggered a multi-channel discussion from which two new arguments arose. But before we get into those, it’s important we understand the situation as it stands.
The state of play in the UK
To put things into perspective, there are around 65 million people living in the UK, of which over 11 million share a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability. That's roughly one in five British citizens.
According to a UK government survey from 2014, the most commonly-reported impairments are those that affect mobility. The same survey states that around a fifth of disabled people report experiencing difficulties related to their impairment or disability in accessing and using transport.
These are facts that James Welling is very much aware of, something he alludes to in his original interview.
Back to the conversation
The first conclusion from the original article determined that, in contrast to the general audience for driverless tech, people with disabilities often absolutely depend on being ‘driven around’ in some way, and have been closely following the public conversation on the development of automated driving from the very start.
This group can, and has, offered some strong and often surprising views on the topic. Driverless isn’t just feature that will make their daily life more convenient, it could also be an immediate gamechanger for their entire way of living.
The arguments for driverless cars – from the perspective of disability
The key points from the discussion surrounding the original article can be summarised as:
- Disabled people can own or share a vehicle without having to rely on special services
- Self-driving cars will not replace the ‘human function’ that people with disabilities depend on
But what does this mean for us? Let's take a closer look.
1. Disabled people can own or share a vehicle without having to rely on special services
Today, most people with disabilities such as these get around either via public transportation or by using assigned driving services, but these means of transit often hold their own set of challenges for disabled users.
In his interview, James Welling points out that he lived “in a small village far off the main road” in his youth, always needing someone to give him a lift into the nearest town. This left him feeling “quite isolated”. While Welling does have positive things to say about the current transport situation for the disabled in the UK, his basic stance on the subject is: “right now, we are going backwards” by not investing in infrastructure and removing personnel in this important public sector.
This is where the main benefit of self-driving cars for people with disabilities comes in. Driverless vehicles will automatically result in more accessible and more comfortable transit for all involved, without the need for third party intervention at any level. It could be cheaper too, with multiple riders having the option to share one vehicle.
But, as with all solutions to any complex problem, it isn't perfect.
2. Self-driving cars will not replace the ‘human function’ that people with disabilities depend on
Disabilities are as individual as the people who live with them, and all of these people have their own set of specific needs besides the missing capability to drive.
One example, that was brought into the discussion by a commenter on the original article, are traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, which occur with veterans “as well as [being] the leading severe injury from auto accidents, a product of strokes, and other injuries." TBIs can often disrupt visual processing, which means the eyes themselves 'work', but the person cannot correctly process what they see.
People with disabilities can need all kinds of assistance – services that today are often provided by unsung heroes, as stated in the discussion: “the taxi driver who does this daily is not recognised, nor is the bus driver or transit system guard.”
Another participant in the discussion stated: “some people will always need carers to get them in and out of the [vehicle] and even travel with them. It will mean that they (and society if we subsidise the cost, as we should) will have to pay to have a person to still perform the human functions that drivers now perform.”
All concerns raised about people needing personal support are important in understanding that the technology is not going to 'take over' completely. There is also our own argument that people with disabilities are in danger of being less socially active, and the removal of the interactions that occur during transit could lead to further isolation in some cases. But to counter this, driverless tech could provide easier access to friends, family and events, which could make up for the shortfall.
Evidently, the 'human function' cannot be dismissed for this group, and it should never be suggested that it will. Therefore, it's important not to portray automated driving as the cure-all for every problem that people with disabilities face when travelling. Instead, solutions that maintain that crucial human factor must be prioritised.
The bottom line
For people with disabilities, the threshold to embrace automated driving is much lower than it is for the general population. However, while generally positive about driverless technology, the group remains skeptical of the promises that are often attached to the topic. After all, there are some very high expectations on driverless technology and what it will mean for people with disabilities, but some big challenges to overcome before it becomes a reality.
A continuous dialogue with this group is pivotal as, even when these expectations have been met, new ones will undoubtedly surface. But we have to meet the initial expectations first, which may take time.
In his original interview James summarised this problem of raising hopes within the disabled community:
"It’s comparable to the media hyping that there might be a cure for all cancers soon. I find it highly irresponsible. We’ve all got a responsibility to be as realistic as possible."
Let's keep talking
Mobility and driverless technology is set to be a big topic in the coming months and years, and it is a subject we intend to keep talking about. To do that, we need you. Your opinions, your experiences and your knowledge. We will keep this conversation going on social media too. See the links below to connect.