The Fuse

Autonomous Vehicles: Driving Employment for People with Disabilities

by Leslie Hayward | October 19, 2017

The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), along with Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), is hosting an online dialogue about how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology can improve employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. The purpose of the dialogue is to promote innovative thinking around the design and deployment of AVs, specifically in regard to helping members of the disability community as they seek stable, long-term employment.

Over 15 million Americans face transportation barriers, including 6 million individuals with disabilities.

Nearly one in five Americans, or 57 million people, have a disability according to Census Bureau data. Over 15 million Americans face transportation barriers, including 6 million individuals with disabilities. Lack of timely and affordable transportation access creates a significant challenge to long-term employment. Paratransit options through public transportation in certain cities provide some assistance, but they are far from ideal—it’s not uncommon for such services to require four hours every day in commuting time (two hours in each direction). Upgrading a personal vehicle to become wheelchair accessible could cost $100,000 per car.

With these challenges in mind, ODEP asked for input through an online policy dialogue to provide ODEP and SAFE with guidance on the resources and materials necessary to support employment for people with disabilities. Questions included:

  • How does access to transportation affect employment opportunities for those with disabilities today?
  • What is needed to ensure that autonomous vehicles are accessible and affordable to those with disabilities? What needs to be understood about vehicle design, human-machine interface requirements, or other concerns?
  • AVs may change the entire system of transportation. What broader design elements should we think about in terms of infrastructure, or the needs around summoning or distributing fleets of AVs?
  • What is the role of the government and public policy in ensuring that everybody, including the disability community, benefits from AV technology.

There is still time to submit comments and ideas to this dialogue. Here are some initial findings:

Interfaces that work for the hearing and visually impaired

Dialogue participants noted that the range of disabilities faced by Americans makes it essential to account for a range of needs when designing interfaces and manual overrides. Touch screen navigation does not meet the needs of passengers who are blind or have certain ambulatory limitations. Participants noted that cars will need to be equipped with verbal as well as manual override capabilities, but an adequate verbal control system must understand multiple accents, languages, speech impediments, and even slang.

An on-demand AV will also need to be capable of signaling, through a noise or other indicator, to a blind passenger that it has arrived .

Wheelchair access

Technology developers must also account for wheelchair access. However, wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all and vary significantly in design. How developers design wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) in order to account for these differences remains an open question—but efforts are already underway. A company called Robotic Research has created and successfully tested the ROAR system: a fully-functional prototype design for an automated system that enables wheelchair users to load, unload, and secure their wheelchairs on an AV. There is an automatic door opener, lift, securement system, and safety switches, as well as verbal operating instructions and status information.

A company called Robotic Research has created and successfully tested the ROAR system: a fully-functional prototype design for an automated system that enables wheelchair users to load, unload, and secure their wheelchairs on an autonomous vehicle.

Since it is widely anticipated that initial AV rollout will be through on-demand fleets, one participant noted that it is still very difficult to hail a wheelchair accessible Uber, Lyft, or taxi in many cities. He argued that improving access to these services today will facilitate greater wheelchair access through the TNCs in the future. Uber is participating in the dialogue, and a representative noted that they are expanding WAV access in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, Boston, and Toronto. The program in Boston has been particularly effective through a partnership with the city’s transit authority (MBTA) to improve access for paratransit users.

The government’s role

The partnership between Boston’s MBTA and Uber is one example of how cities can work with industry to streamline transportation access for individuals with disabilities.

Dialogue participants offered several ideas for how the government can facilitate AV access for people with disabilities. In order to streamline efforts and save costs, the federal government should coordinate with existing efforts to support wounded warriors and disabled veterans. The Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration, may be able to help facilitate, as a partnership of federal agencies working to build ladders of opportunity across America by improving the availability, quality and efficient delivery of transportation services to people with disabilities, older adults, and people with low incomes.

Questions remain regarding how federal, state, or local government programs would/could subsidize rides in accessible AVs for the transportation-disadvantaged.

It was also suggested that the cost of leasing or purchasing AVs should be an allowable cost in employment or training programs that target individuals with disabilities.

In addition to various proposals for government to fund projects or initiatives, governments should also not create barriers to access for those with disabilities. Dialogue participants supported the idea that highly automated vehicles should not require a licensed driver, since many individuals with disabilities are unable to obtain a conventional driver’s license.

Affordability and accessibility in rural areas

Individuals with disabilities in rural areas may face even greater transportation challenges than those in cities with public transportation. A major theme from mobility managers who participated in the dialogue is that a collaborative approach is necessary to solve these challenges. A mobility manager in Tompkins County, NY noted the following components of their work:

We are developing a strategy to 1) organize a mobility coordination center for trip reservations and dispatch; 2) link inter-county public transit connections; 3) support existing small volunteer driver services with a transition to a contemporary, tech-enabled volunteer transport services; 4) promote and support regional ridesharing with apps; and 5) build a network of regional partners including employers, health care providers, individual communities, and all mobility providers. We need to be very creative in securing funding for this work.

Others noted the importance of working at the community level to coordinate transit authorities, senior services, local colleges or schools, taxi companies and TNCs, and the local government. Without coordinated efforts among these groups, AV technology on its own may not offer significant benefits to these communities.

Challenges ahead

AVs offer a significant opportunity to mitigate the transportation barriers faced by millions of people in the disability community. But significant challenges need to be overcome. Ongoing questions include:

  • How should manual overrides be managed in the event of a malfunction or technical difficulty?
  • How can vehicles be tracked to ensure safety while maintaining data privacy?
  • To what extent will vehicles need to be “customized” for the needs of specific groups?
  • How will costs be managed and what, if any, subsidies need to be provided?
  • Trust in new technology takes time to build—how can fears of malfunction or other issues be addressed while the technology is still in development?

There is still time to contribute ideas to this dialogue. Click here to answer these questions or raise new ones.