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Autonomous Vehicles (AV)

Autonomous vehicles (AV), also referred to as driverless or self-driving vehicles, have the potential to revolutionize transportation and make sweeping changes to the way people interact with the world around them. AV technology can alter the where, when, and how of transportation, for both personal and commercial purposes. Already being used in some cities, technology corporations and manufacturers are planning for the wide-spread production and use of these vehicles within the next few decades.

For people with disabilities, the mainstream use of AV would increase access to transportation that is reliable and accessible, thereby expanding employment options, mobility, and overall independence. AV technology could roll out in the context of public transit, ridesharing, or even private ownership. In the United States, there are two million persons with disabilities who never leave their home because they are unable to drive. Imagine the opportunities that would open up to these people through the mainstream deployment of AV. If developed with accessibility at the forefront, these vehicles offer a renewed opportunity to tackle one of the most difficult issues our society has been attempting to overcome for decades: equitable access to transportation and employment.

What are Autonomous Vehicles?

Today, vehicles on the road are increasingly becoming “connected vehicles” that may use software, applications, and internet capabilities to communicate with the operator, other vehicles, and the outside world. This communication improves safety and efficiency, but a driver is still fundamentally in command of the vehicle. By contrast, autonomous vehicles remove the need for a driver to control the steering, acceleration, braking, and monitoring of the roadway.

The Society for Automotive Engineers has defined six levels of automation based on the role and level of control held by the driver and the system.

  • Level 0 (No Automation): The human driver does all the driving.
  • Level 1 (Driver Assistance): An advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) on the vehicle can assist the human driver with either steering or braking/accelerating.
  • Level 2 (Partial Automation): An ADAS on the vehicle can control both steering and braking/accelerating under some circumstances. The human driver must continue to perform the rest of the driving task.
  • Level 3 (Conditional Automation): An automated driving system (ADS) on the vehicle can perform all aspects of the driving task under some circumstances. The human driver must be ready to take back control at any time the ADS requests the human driver to do so. In all other circumstances, the human driver performs the driving task. Many of today’s vehicles are considered Level 3.
  • Level 4 (High Automation): An ADS on the vehicle can perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment—essentially, do all the driving—in certain circumstances. The human need not pay attention in those circumstances.
  • Level 5 (Full Automation): An ADS on the vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances. The human occupants are just passengers and do not need to be involved in driving.

AV and the Future of Work

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities participate in the workforce at less than a third the rate of people without disabilities. For people with disabilities, AV holds the potential to remove obstacles to employment and increase mobility. AV can break down transportation barriers in the way of getting to work, and it can help people engage in community activities and live independently. In fact, Gartner research predicts that the number of people with disabilities in the workforce will triple by 2023, due to emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge trends that PEAT is following.

This shift will only happen if autonomous vehicles are built with universal design principals for usability and accessibility. Accessible features must be intuitive, adaptable, and simple to use:

  • Communications between the vehicle and passengers should facilitate multiple modes of interaction. For example, audible announcements should accompany visual displays, and passengers should be able to speak or type text commands to the vehicle.
  • Vehicles must have interfaces in the interior that account for diverse disabilities. These interfaces might include haptic communication through sense of touch to convey information.
  • Lifts, wheelchair ramps, and processes for stowing chairs during travel should likewise be standard on all vehicles.

If AV is designed and deployed with accessibility in mind, it can open opportunities for a better future for individuals with physical, mobility, sensory, mental, and cognitive disabilities, as well as older Americans.