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”Driverless cars are my lifeline”

Can driverless cars improve mobility for people with disabilities? (Photo: Fotolia / connel_design)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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James Welling was born with a permanent movement disorder. In a conversation, the transport consultant explains how driverless cars would give him more independence in life – and why the media should not play with the expectations of people with disabilities.

2 in 1,000 children are born with cerebral palsy – a group of permanent movement disorders. One of them is James Welling (38). His disorder affects his balance, eyesight and coordination. Welling, who lives in Sussex county in South East England, is one of the staunchest supporters of autonomous driving and known for his Twitter contributions on the topic. He believes that the technology could drastically improve mobility for people with disabilities.

2025AD: Mr. Welling, for young people it is often a pivotal moment during their adolescence to get their driving license. When did you find out you would not be able to drive a vehicle by yourself?

James Welling: I’ve always had a passion for cars. Being a young guy at school, Formula 1 was quite big back then as were the British touring cars. When all my friends started to drive I wanted to join them. With my cerebral palsy, I’ve always walked with crutches or used a wheelchair. But at school I used a tricycle and I like to think I drove that quite well. It was only when I found out I had to be able to read number plates that I knew I was screwed. My short-distance eyesight was just too bad.

James Welling

2025AD: What did it mean to you?

Welling: It was a huge setback. My family lived in a small village far off the main road. So that meant I always needed someone to give me a lift to town. I felt quite isolated.

2025AD: How does it affect your mobility today?

Welling: I want to be as independent as possible. Because of my job, I moved away from my family. They live in an area that was not very accessible for public transport.  I don’t want to have to rely on friends because they have got families of their own to take care of. So I had to move closer to the city where the options were better.  Now I live close to Gatwick Airport.

2025AD: Is it easy for you to travel with public transport?

Welling: The buses here are very accessible. The main problem is that there is only one wheelchair bay per bus – and that space gets shared with buggies. That is very difficult – who gets to use it? Is it first come first served – or is it the wheelchair user? If the wheelchair bay is already taken I would have to wait for the next bus.

2025AD: What about trains?

Welling: If you are disabled, you rely heavily on guards to get you off and on the train because there are no lifts. Unfortunately, the train service is removing guards to cut costs. It’s a shame because we would need to invest millions to make trains and stations more accessible. But right now we are going backwards in this country.

2025AD: When was the first time you heard of driverless cars?

Welling: It was the Google demonstration with the blind gentleman in a self-driving car back in 2012. That’s what got me hooked. Now I know the whole demonstration was probably heavily scripted (laughs). But still, it was an incredible achievement that really highlighted what could be possible.

Accessibility of public transporation varies considerably. (Photo: Fotolia / juananbarros)

2025AD: Google has said from the outset that one goal was to improve mobility for people with disabilities. Did you realize immediately that this technology could have a big impact on your life?

Welling: Yes, because it would offer so much more flexibility. I could start and stop where and whenever I want. I wouldn’t be stuck in a train that can be delayed or cancelled. That’s why I am heavily in favor of driverless cars. I also think it would be the smarter investment for us as a country. I am not against enhancing the railway, but for some costly projects like the High Speed 2 project, the money could be spent more effective on other things.

2025AD: Something you said really caught my attention: “I see driverless car technology as a lifeline for me”. Can you tell me more about what that means?

Welling: If I could use a driverless car I could move back to my family. It could get me from the house there to my workplace – door-to-door. If I had to go somewhere urgently, I wouldn’t have to ask friends to give me a lift. I wouldn’t have to worry about combining multiple modes of transportation. I wouldn’t have to worry whether there will be a buggy in the wheelchair bay. And think about other people who have worse disabilities than myself – for them it would be a lifeline, too.

2025AD: Would you prefer driverless ride-hailing fleets or rather owning a self-driving car?

Welling: That depends. If the fleet is reliable and accessible – I’ll take it. If it comes with long waiting times or the equipment is always broken – I would prefer my own car. In the end I would do what’s best for me.

2025AD: Affordability would probably be another important factor when it comes to owning a driverless car.

Welling: Yes, but I could also share my vehicle with disabled friends of mine. That could be a good way of raising money. There would be plenty of options to choose from.

2025AD: Imagine the moment you enter a driverless car: what do you think would be the first thing you’d look for from a usability perspective?

Welling: Good question, I haven’t used a driverless car yet. A sun roof would be nice (laughs).

2025AD: Safety is a big issue for driverless cars. Do you trust autonomous vehicles to be safer than conventional cars one day?

Welling: That’s an interesting issue. Think about it this way: if I stay at a hotel, sometimes I don’t really have a choice – I have to take the lift to get upstairs. I am sure there are people who hate lifts – but they rely on them. Or if you don’t like the taste of a medicine – you still have to use it. I think it will be the same with driverless cars. It depends how much you rely on them. Necessity would trump fear.

Facilitating mobility for people with disabilities: a societal challenge. (Photo: Fotolia / Minerva Studio)

2025AD: Google used to promote the fact that their self-driving cars would be on the roads within this decade. Other experts say fully autonomous vehicles are still at least a decade way. What do you think is realistic?

Welling: There is a lot of hype about driverless cars. But when you have people like me who are disabled and rely on them, car companies should be careful not to overpromise. Some people with disabilities are terminally ill and to raise their hopes artificially is unfair. We have to be realistic. We might start with bus networks where only certain lines have driverless vehicles. Some people might be able to use them, others might not. Driverless vehicles might not be available at all times and in all weather. This will expand over time.

2025AD: How hard is it to live with this uncertainty?

Welling: 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.

2025AD: You work as a transport consultant. What exactly is your role?

Welling: I am consulting public transport bodies as to how to design their trains or buses and how to improve the efficiency of their services to best meet the needs of disabled people. For instance, I suggested to the bus operator in my area that every bus should have two wheelchair bays.  But my work is not limited to transport. It’s also about hotel designs, for example.

2025AD: Do you also offer your expertise when it comes to driverless cars?

Welling: Funny you should mention that...I actually have a meeting today in London with students from the Royal College of Art. As part of the GATEway project, they are seeking advice from people with disabilities, but also from other stakeholders like policemen, for instance.

2025AD: What’s that all about?

Welling: They want to envision the driverless car of the future. The stakeholders help them understand how they could best meet the different wants and needs. Those pods are supposed to be wheelchair accessible and also suitable for people with other disabilities - for instance, blind people. It’s about making the vehicles as inclusive as possible. I hope this will be repeated in other parts of the United Kingdom. It’s incredibly pleasing to be asked to support this project.

2025AD: Mr. Welling, thank you very much for these interesting insights!

Should governments increase their support for driverless vehicles to improve mobility for people with disabilities? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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