by Ron Brooks
Recently, I attended an industry workshop where several employees from the self-driving car company Waymo and from Valley Metro, the transit agency where I work, gave a presentation about a pilot program we launched in 2018. The purpose of the two-year pilot is to test the effectiveness of self-driving cars for connecting people with transit. We began with a handful of employees. Then, we opened the pilot to seniors and people with disabilities who reside in the area where Waymo operates. The goal of our pilot is to determine the extent to which self-driving cars are able to meet the more complex transportation needs of seniors and people with disabilities.
At the end of the presentation, a number of audience members engaged with the panel in a spirited discussion about the readiness of the technology and about the fear some people have about self-driving cars. Several speakers stated that Waymo and other manufacturers should slow down until society can adapt to this new and scary reality.
From my perspective, slowing down is exactly what we should not do. As a blind guy who does not drive, and who has never driven, self-driving cars will be a dream come true on so many levels. First, as a lifelong pedestrian, I have been hit at least three times I can remember. Thankfully, none of these collisions were serious, and I was able to walk away with nothing more than bumps and bruises, a broken cane or two, and many moments of a racing heart and ringing in my ears. Unfortunately, this is not true for many other people who have been hit, injured and killed by cars.
Self-driving cars are not perfect, but according to National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration statistics, 94% of accidents are caused by human error, so I like the improving odds that come with automation. Second, if I need to run an errand that requires anything more than a walk or a ride on transit, I am dependent on someone else. Whether it’s paratransit or a cab or a Lyft, or even my daughter who just got her license, I’m dependent on someone. That means I have to factor in their availability, their time, and of course in most cases, extra money. Third and for me, most important of all, there’s date night. Everyone who has a spouse or a partner knows about date night. For my wife and me, date night is a critical strategy for staying together and for not braining our teenage kids. But since neither of us drive, it is something we have never, ever, not in 23 years of marriage and two years of dating before that, been able to do by ourselves. For me, self-driving cars mean that I will finally be able to go out with my wife — just the two of us — just like most couples are able to do any time they are able to sneak away from the mayhem. For me, self-driving cars are not scary; it’s the idea that I may be too old to enjoy date night before they come along that is scariest of all.
Although I am excited about self-driving cars, many within the transit and disability communities are concerned that self-driving cars may leave people with disabilities behind due to a lack of accessibility. As one speaker put it, “It’s not the first mile that worries me. It’s the first ten feet.” So how can we ensure that self-driving cars are sufficiently accessible for people with disabilities to summon, to locate when they do come, to board, to ride and to enjoy?
So far, the accessibility question is largely open. Most automated vehicle manufacturers (including Waymo) have not fully addressed the accessibility question, but all recognize the importance of accessibility, and they are working on solutions. In addition, they have a myriad of organizations, including the ACB, providing input and assistance on strategies for addressing accessibility. Personally, I am optimistic. Although none of us know how this technology will ultimately play out, I strongly believe that the technology will be accessible. First, those of us with disabilities who will depend on self-driving cars for our mobility will be able to summon a car with an accessible app. Then, when the car arrives, we will receive an accessible notification — just as is the case with a number of transportation apps today. Locating the car will be made easier by wayfinding features built into the app and/or by features built into the car. Perhaps it will call to us, or maybe it will act like the cab drivers of old by honking its horn. The space within the car will include ample space for possessions, guide dogs and ultimately, for mobility devices — perhaps by allowing seats to be flipped up with a button or automatically, based on user preferences specified within the app. There will be accessible controls for the radio and the climate control, and a “help” button that will link us to live assistance that can monitor our progress and assist remotely if needed. I think there is more uncertainty about what happens when we arrive at our destination, but I am confident that these challenges can and will be addressed as well.
In conclusion, I am confident that self-driving cars will work for people with disabilities. I am confident because I know the law. More importantly, the self-driving car manufacturers know the law, and they know that the country’s 54 million people with disabilities (many of whom cannot drive) represent a gigantic market share for this rapidly evolving and exciting technology.
So make way for self-driving cars! And if you’re ever in Phoenix and one passes you by on the street, that just might be me sitting there in the backseat, holding my wife’s hand. So dudes, blind and sighted alike, you can eat your hearts out!