Many news stories and articles suggest that this approach is the next clear step in the evolution of private and public transport, but will autonomous vehicles help the disabled?
1. How will they work
Firstly, let’s consider what these driverless vehicle solutions look like. There are, of course, different and exciting ideas coming out from technology companies around the globe, but some of the key features remain universal. For one, the driving duties of the majority of these vehicles lie in the metaphorical hands of an AI. These artificial intelligences are being programmed to observe their surroundings through cameras and sensors, to control all elements of the vehicle that a human driver would, and to constantly be making the hundreds of tiny decisions and calculations that any good driver makes when behind the wheel. Many modern cars already utilise smart technologies not too dissimilar to this – think of lane control features, ‘self-parking’ cars, auto-lights – so in some ways, drivers have slowly been handing responsibility over to their vehicles already. To ensure safety of passengers and pedestrians, these AI will all need to meet very high standards, which may mean that the driving technology available in different models is actually very similar.
As a mechanism, AI opens up a lot of potential for individuals with mobility challenges and disabilities, particularly those whose conditions prevent them from driving standard vehicles currently. There are legal implications in these circumstances, however, as the law would need to allow for people without a driving licence to be in control of an autonomous vehicle. Phillip Hammond has stated that UK law will allow for driverless cars to be in use on roads around the country from 2021, but this would be for vehicles under the guidance of a qualified driver. It’s certainly expected that these regulations will evolve in line with the technology, allowing for non-drivers to be the sole passenger of an autonomous car, but this will take longer. However, when this does happen, it will be a huge positive for those who otherwise have to rely on others. This benefit could be particularly felt by those who live in rural areas where public transport is not as easily accessible, whether the user owns their own autonomous vehicle, or perhaps they could arrange a driverless taxi.
2. Design and performance
Design-wise, many of the driverless cars currently in development aren’t too dissimilar on the outside from the cars you see on our roads today. The concepts for some of the interiors, however, are very different. The Mercedes F 015 Luxury features four seats that look inwards at each other, almost like a small lounge. With design like this, the opportunity for greater space and flexibility for those with mobility issues is certainly on the table. However, for these cars to fully serve the needs of those with disabilities, the engineers must keep their requirements in mind – Google have already had a blind man test their autonomous vehicle. Ideally, wheelchair users will be able to make use of these vehicles without assistance or have access to adapted versions of the self-driving cars. Arguably, the same problems that disabled passengers currently face such as a lack of accessible taxis, buses and trains and malfunctioning, poor quality ramps and lifts will still be present in this new driverless scenario, the only difference being the absence of another person.
Once inside, interactions with the car are intended to be simple and the interface should be easy for anyone to understand and use. GPS will be in-built, and voice is expected to be one of the main ways in which these cars are controlled; indeed, several major car companies already work with voice technology. When driving, the car should be more efficient and economical than a human driver as its decision-making will be more consistent. It has been suggested that this will lead to reduced congestion, but some studies suggest otherwise meaning that until this technology goes mainstream, the ways in which people choose to use it is hard to predict.
Overall, there are plenty of pros to driverless vehicles for both those with and without a disability. The picture painted by those working on the technology, is one of a happier, more relaxed person who can get from A to B comfortably whilst making use of their time.
3. How much will they cost?
One of the immediate barriers to entry for many will be the cost. As with any new technology, the initial launch to market will be at a price out of reach for many. Tesla already offers a full ‘auto-pilot’ in their electric cars, which adds $5000 to the price of the vehicle. This high cost could have a knock-on effect as to how fast the technology is more widely adopted and further adapted for those with mobility issues as it will only become completely clear what the disabled community needs from this technology as it becomes accessible to a wider audience.
As with WAV kits, there is some thought that conversion kits, that can convert a standard vehicle into a self-driving car, could be a means of making the technology more widely available. This would still come at a cost, of course, and it would appear that this option isn’t developing as fast as purpose-built driverless cars, but it’s one to watch.
4. The human factor
There’s also the all-important human element to consider. Driverless cars could lead to an increase in the number of journeys individuals make on their own and talking to the on-board computer isn’t going to be the same as the conversation someone might otherwise have had with a human driver. If a disabled passenger was travelling alone in such a vehicle and required assistance, what level of built-in technology will be available to aid the passenger?
Mobility challenges and the ageing population go hand in hand, and with an epidemic of loneliness within this community, the introduction of yet another robot-led service could be detrimental to mental health. However, the potential increased freedom could see a rise in socialising and therefore have a positive impact on mental health.
Concerns aside, driverless cars will soon be on our roads. The potential is there for a complete overhaul in the way disabled people travel; hopefully with increased independence and comfort. We can only encourage the leaders of this technological movement to carry out adequate research into what would assist disabled people and realise this potential; ensuring disabled passengers don’t miss out on this next wave of transport evolution.