Could driverless cars improve life for people with disabilities?
They are too old to drive safely or cannot see well enough or otherwise have sound reason to fear climbing behind the wheel of a car. For them, a future when vehicles drive themselves promises unprecedented freedom.
This is a good-news story, but one that comes replete with the caveats and worries that people who have traditionally been cut out of the transportation equation -- in part or entirely -- continue to harbor.
"We are concerned that certain populations will not be able to benefit from this technology if very specific design issues are not addressed," said Henry Claypool, a policy consultant to the American Association of People with Disabilities and co-author of a paper that gauges the potential impact of self-driving cars on the community.
The Trump administration and both chambers of Congress are trying to strike a balance between allowing unfettered design development and prudent regulation for an industry that already has test fleets on the road in many states, including some without a backup driver behind the wheel.
"Whether it's because of General Motors ignition switches, Takata air bags or Volkswagen emissions software, consumers are not necessarily going to immediately trust auto companies," William Wallace of the Consumers Union said in arguing for more-stringent federal oversight this month at a forum held by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
More than 60 million people are hearing or vision impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of elderly who no longer drive is not certain, but as the baby-boom generation ages, it is bound to swell. In addition, an estimated 3.5 million Americans have some form of autism, and about 400,000 have Down syndrome. These groups also stand to benefit from the new technology.
"Autonomous vehicles will mean significantly more independence for the Down syndrome community," said Ashley Helsing, director of government relations at the National Down Syndrome Society. "Transportation is a huge barrier for employment of people with Down syndrome."
The allure of fully autonomous cars is immense for those who have felt trapped by four walls, consigned to the vagaries of public transit or otherwise constrained by circumstance of their disability.
"While blind people get around by using mass transit and other things, we don't have the flexibility the autonomous vehicles will present," said John G. Paré Jr., executive director for advocacy and policy at the National Federation of the Blind.
But questions abound among people with disabilities on how autonomous cars will be designed and whether they will provide the promised mobility. Those issues are being raised in discussions with designers, automakers and federal regulators.
Will autonomous vehicles be wheelchair accessible, and will wheelchairs be able to roll into them so their occupants need not transfer to a seat in the vehicle? Will there be tactile and audio interface so that the visually impaired can track the vehicle's progress? How about a way for the blind to adjust things such as air conditioning and the radio? How will the vehicles be summoned and given a destination?
"Every time I read about self-driving cars, I wonder whether people who don't hear well and depend on lip-reading would have any way of telling the car what to do," said Marjorie C. Younglof, a Virginia woman who has been profoundly deaf since birth but hears with two cochlear implants. "Believe me, deaf people -- those deaf from birth, in particular -- can be very hard to understand when they speak."
Waymo, the company that began its life as Google's autonomous-car division, launched its quest for fully autonomous vehicles before most of its current flock of competitors left the starting gate. Its driverless cars have driven 3.5 million miles in 22 test cities, including one in Austin where a blind man successfully completed a test ride alone.
This month, the company said it would take the next step in its testing: removing the human from behind the wheel as its Level 4 cars motor around Arizona. (A Level 4 vehicle is designed to come to a safe stop, should anything go wrong, without driver intervention.)
Waymo's approach holds particular resonance for companies such as Uber and Lyft, whose design model is providing taxi-like door-to-door service rather than building autos for private ownership.
"Even though people aren't driving, we know that a sense of control is essential," said Waymo project manager Juliet Rothenberg.
Waymo says it has incorporated several design elements intended to help the elderly and people with disabilities. Like most things these days, the first step is a smartphone app intended to be easy to use and accessible to those with disabilities.
The company is exploring ways in which a vehicle could give an audible signal to a blind person when it arrives for pickup. Once in the car, an app would keep the rider informed of progress. Key control buttons in current Waymo Level 4 vehicles are marked in Braille.
Hearing-impaired riders will be able to follow the route on screens that are about the size of that of a laptop computer and show selected information including the car's route, traffic signals, crosswalks, other cars, pedestrians and cyclists.
The Waymo cars come with a "Pull Over" button placed next to the "Start" button and a "Help" button that will initiate two-way voice communications with a control center.
Bryan Reimer, a research scientist in the MIT AgeLab and associate director of MIT's New England University Transportation Center, said the prospect of wheel-in, wheel-out wheelchair accessibility might not be immediate.
"We need to be very careful in how do we craft the regulatory focus here that enables the growth of the technology that can provide the benefits that everybody wants," he said, "while ensuring over the long haul that we meet the basics of (the Americans With Disabilities Act) and other requirements."
Reimer pointed out General Motors' selection of the Chevrolet Volt for its foray into autonomous cars "may be the best place for GM to start, but it does not meet the mobility goals of a wheelchair-accessible population."
Younglof said seniors might also have trouble communicating with the car. "They are not as quick as younger people are to latch onto new technology and incorporate it into their lives," she said.
The number of elderly who have given up or curtailed their driving to avoid driving in the dark, in bad weather or in heavy traffic is unclear. A 2008 survey by the CDC found that 15 percent of those 65 or older had stopped driving, while an overwhelming number of those who continued to drive were very selective about when they did so.
The goal of developers is to strike a balance between keeping passengers fully informed while also keeping the experience fairly simple. Driverless cars, obviously, drive themselves once instructed on the pickup point and destination.
Raj Kapoor, Lyft's chief strategy officer, points to the likelihood that some elderly and people with disabilities may need someone to help them -- providing an opportunity for ride-hailing services, for example.
"There's going to be a need for humans to help with things like accessibility," Kapoor said. "Just because someone's not driving doesn't mean there can't be human assistance."