Sep 2, 2020

How autonomous carmakers can make their cars more accessible

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The next generation of cars might not have steering wheels or pedals and could be mostly empty pods big enough to fit wheelchairs.

We’ve been talking about how technology is, or isn’t, making the world more accessible for people with disabilities. Last month, we spoke with Haben Girma, a disability rights advocate who is deafblind. She told us self-driving cars could be an especially powerful tool.

“Imagine the freedom, the independence,” she said. “I was talking to someone who works at one of these companies, and he said, ‘We’re a few years from releasing the car. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll think about disability access.’ ”

So how are car companies approaching autonomy and accessibility, and couldn’t they include access for all from the ground up? Mark Takahashi works for Edmunds, an auto research site. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Mark Takahashi: It is very likely that they will not have any sort of controls. It’ll simply be, you tell the car where you want to go, and it takes you there. If you look at the concept for the Google self-driving car from several years ago, it had no pedals and no steering wheel.

Molly Wood: So, there is a scenario where they could say, we sell a pod. Anybody can get in and out of this pod. You could purchase an aftermarket unit to hold a wheelchair in place. But beyond that, everyone gets the same pod.

Takahashi: That is entirely possible, and it’s actually been proposed several times. Toyota at CES a few years ago [had] this box on wheels that you could configure to do whatever you want, whether it’s public transportation or autonomous deliveries or transforming it into a food truck or a DJ station or whatever you can think of to put inside of a rolling box. And that is a blank canvas for anyone to work with, whether they need accessibility or not.

Mark Takahashi (Courtesy Edmunds)

Wood: So, if we’re not doing that, is it an assumption that people won’t want to buy that? Or is it just, like, a lack of will?

Takahashi: It’s hard to say. These blank canvas boxes are certainly being considered. And actually, the Toyota version was supposed to be in action by now because it was slated to make its debut at the Summer Olympics.

Wood: How far away are we from being able to put perfect faith in that pod?

Takahashi: I would hope, best-case scenario, between eight and 10 years that everything will finally come together. We’ll have the high-speed networks, we’ll have the processing power in cars and we’ll have all those sensors built into the vehicles that need them.

Wood: It sounds like you’re saying companies really could reset cars. They certainly could create a blank canvas that would be accessible for all instead of trying to bolt on features after the fact. Why wouldn’t they?

Takahashi: Well, cars have a lot of personality. And for some people, it tells other people what they want that car to represent them as. So, if we have a blank slate box on wheels, it doesn’t exactly have a lot of personality, not in its base form, at least. So, there’s still this idea that a vehicle should say something about its owner.

Wood: For Haben Girma’s sake, I’m gonna say, get some bumper stickers.

Takahashi: Exactly.

Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, riding in Google's Firefly self-driving car down a street in Austin, Texas.
Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, riding in Google’s self-driving Firefly in 2015. The car had no pedals or steering wheel. (Courtesy Waymo)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Speaking of Google’s original pod design: sad news on that front. The little pod, which was adorable, by the way, was called the Firefly, and Google killed it in 2017. It now uses regular old cars to test its self-driving tech.

There was a white paper from the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2017 that makes a strong economic case for including the disabled in autonomous car design. The research shows it would open up job opportunities for up to 2 million people and save something like $19 billion a year in health care costs because people with disabilities could get reliable access to doctors’ appointments and medical care.

The Department of Transportation says more than 25 million people have some kind of disability that makes it difficult to leave home. That can lead to isolation and even death because of that absence of medical care.

And while this is a design problem, it actually could be a policy question. Congress has been grappling with how to regulate autonomous cars in all kinds of ways: Do they need a human driver? Should they have to have brakes or a steering wheel?

If the Americans with Disabilities Act regulates building and construction design, couldn’t regulators also have a say in making autonomous cars accessible for all? Don’t worry, I’m sure all of us who really love our cars can still buy them in bright red or get spoilers to show our identity on the road, too.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer