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Autonomous Vehicles & the Disability and Aging Communities

The possibility of seeing an autonomous vehicle (or “highly automated vehicle” in DOT parlance) driving down your street is no longer a question of “if” but “when.”  For example, Pittsburgh Uber now offers users the option of being picked up in a self-driving car, one of fourteen Ford Fusions equipped with radar, cameras and other sensing equipment.  For many in the disability community, the prospect of self-driving vehicles opens up the possibility of independent travel.  The potential of automated vehicles to extend older adults’ ability to drive safely longer also has appeal.  However, many questions remain, not the least of which is the importance of encouraging the use of public transportation as an alternative to driving.

To focus attention on the needs and concerns of the disability and aging communities, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) convened a meeting on “The Future of Autonomous Vehicles and the Disability Community” on November 10.  Aging and disability organizations, Federal transportation officials, providers, transportation network companies, auto industry representatives, researchers and advocates were invited to participate in a wide-ranging conversation.  Beginning with brief presentations by aging and disability organizations on transportation barriers facing people with disabilities and older adults and the potential of autonomous vehicles to impact the current situation, the meeting was organized to facilitate open dialogue.  During discussion, industry representatives made clear that the development of autonomous vehicles is moving ahead rapidly despite questions that have been raised about safety, driver licensing, liability and cost.

During the discussion, disability and aging representatives identified several issues critical to ensuing that their needs, preferences and concerns are considered as autonomous vehicle technology is developed:

  • How can we increase our knowledge and understanding of the potential benefits of this technology for people with disabilities and older adults?
  • What accessibility best practices should be adapted to accommodate users who are blind, low vision, deaf or wheelchair users?
  • What are the opportunities for older adults and people with disabilities to engage with the industry so their needs are given upfront, priority consideration during the research and development stage [and not as an afterthought]? How can working relationships between the aging, disability and R&D communities be facilitated?
  • Besides vehicle operation, what other issues (e.g., wayfinding) might impact the usability of autonomous vehicles by people with disabilities?
  • How can we bring other transportation modes (in addition to automobiles) that may adopt this technology into this conversation?
  • What other factors should NIDILRR consider in their consideration of future research in this arena?


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