Much of the excitement and furore surrounding driverless cars is due to two potential benefits; reducing the number of accidents caused by human error, and allowing us to be transported whilst having freedom to engage in other activities. But one of the benefits often included in the ‘long list’ rather than the headlines of driverless cars is the independence driverless cars could give to people with a whole array of disabilities. This effect could be the way that society is most changed by the introduction of this incredible new technology.
The UN estimates that 15% of the world are disabled, amounting to one billion people. There are around 11.9 million people who are classified as living with a disability in the UK, amounting to 19% of the population. For many of these people, transport is a key issue. For obvious reasons those with physical disabilities often cannot learn to drive cars, but it also extends to those with mental incapacities; for example, those with epilepsy cannot drive if they have had a seizure in the previous 12 months. To compound this issue, outside of the major cities, public transport in the UK is often of limited quantity and quality. Despite efforts by the government, many aspects of public transport are still not disability-friendly.
The nature of public transport means that individuals with disability often do not have the independence to travel when and where they want to. This can lead to a sense of entrapment that causes stress and anxiety. Furthermore, disabled people are still 30% less likely to be unemployed, and difficultly with transportation could be considered an important reason behind this trend.
However, driverless cars have the potential to change this. With driverless cars likely to be able to take people to destinations at a single command, this could create the independence that is a central desire for many disabled people. It could offer a whole new world of possibilities to this 19% of the population, both at work and socially.
This could have the added effect of helping to change attitudes towards people with disability. More able to be involved in society and at work, the stigma surrounding disability could be shed more quickly as engagement with able-bodied individuals becomes more frequent.
This seems like a positive story. But there is a small sticking point. Recent draft legislation in the state of California regarding driverless cars has included the need for a qualified driver to be behind the wheel of an automated car. Similarly, Nissan were recently quoted as saying driving without an able-bodied driver behind the wheel was not a priority.
For this and other associated reasons, Google are fighting hard to take this requirement for an able-bodied driver out of the draft legislation. This is an example of a company trying to ensure the automotive industry change will be truly transformational for society, against the aversion of government. A focus by the industry on ensuring this complete change will be crucial to achieving this goal.
Pressure from the public and the private sector is needed to ensure legislation continues to be progressive, and make transport opportunities equal to all. With the right legislation in place, driverless cars could open up a world of possibilities for those living with disability like never before.