Self-Driving Cars: Transforming Mobility For The Elderly And People With Disabilities

The federal government recently released guidance that will hasten the roll out of self-driving cars on American roads. The roads will not be filled with driverless cars tomorrow, but these smart, efficient vehicles are already operating in some cities and they will become widespread more quickly than most drivers think. Automakers and technology companies are making significant strides towards the connected car future. New sensor and autonomous technologies are being announced weekly, and the Administration has made commitments to support these developments and accelerate their roll out.

Sensor and autonomous technologies can transform automotive safety and convenience for preexisting American drivers, but they can do more; they can increase mobility for the elderly and Americans with disabilities who may be constrained from driving altogether.

As most people take having transportation options as a given, people with disabilities and the elderly may benefit most from these new developments. Autonomous driving technology has the potential to transform life for populations that are not able to get a driver’s license today. People with epilepsy and blind people are constantly managing the logistical challenges associated with getting groceries, taking the kids to school or going out for the evening - or just not going out at all. The employment rate for people with disabilities continues to decline even after the modest recovery from the great recession. Game changing technology has the potential to halt this decline and hopefully allow more people with disabilities to go to work each day as these barriers to transportation are taken down by technology.

Of course, new technology needs to be safe before it can be rolled out to a broad set of users. And privacy commitments will be necessary to ensure that the data used to power the sophisticated algorithms that enable autonomous vehicle navigation will be protected. But the measures used to manage safety and data must be informed by the needs of both the general consumers who are going to benefit from the safety, and the benefits to people with disabilities who will gain from the mobility enabled by truly driverless cars.

To address some of the concerns about data management in connected vehicles, the Auto Alliance and Global Automakers last year released “Privacy Principles For Vehicle Technologies And Services,” to establish baseline principles for privacy in this area. However, some critics worried that the pervasive focus more on technicalities of autonomous vehicles than actual safety concerns have led to a scenario where these vehicles will only be driven by individuals with licenses. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has taken this path with its proposed regulation for autonomous vehicles that require a human driver to be inside the car at all times. However, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) seems to be on a wiser path. In a formal letter, the DOT allowed for the possibility that autonomous vehicles could operate on U.S. roads without a human driver at the wheel. In fact, Sam Schmidt recently received the first license restricted to an autonomous vehicle in the United States.

The DOT’s recently released guidance, Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, provides guidelines for the safe deployment of automated safety technology. The DOT emphasizes that technologies with proven, data-supported benefits that would make roads safer should be encouraged.

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