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Self-Driving Cars and People with Disabilities

After my last blog post on incorporating the input of consumers with disabilities in development of innovative products, I came across this timely and very detailed article: Autonomous driving is here, and it’s going to change everything. Self-driving cars will eventually displace manual driving, and as in the 1920s when “horseless carriages” hit the roads, society won’t be the same again. My children may be part of the first generation in 100 years to not get driver’s licenses.

Yet one theme was silent in this informative article. Where are the elderly and the people with disabilities? Self-driving cars will unleash innovation on a significant scale, and no corner of society will be affected. “Massive disruption to urban mobility,” the article states.

People with disabilities are 15-20% of the U.S. market. A good percentage of them are not able to drive. Statistics are here, here, and here. A potentially large market that could experience greater mobility and independence.

It’s a textbook case of the point I made in my last blog post: innovation can deliver significant benefits to portions of society, yet people with disabilities, including the elderly, are not always considered during the development and marketing process for innovative products. Even when they are some of the more likely beneficiaries of innovation.

Far from being a promise of mobility and independence for people with disabilities, the development of self-driving products may end up disenfranchising the people it could benefit. Because when self-driving cars are developed, the design of the cars will be important, and care must be given to making these cars as accessible to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities.

Should every car be accessible? One likely assumption of a self-driving world is that car ownership will decline significantly among individuals, with more self-driving cars owned and operated by car-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Should a percentage of self-driving cars owned by car sharers be accessible? Why even put a percentage on it? Why make consumers with disabilities go through the effort of requesting a specific accessible car to pick them up? It’s very possible they end up waiting longer for accessible cars than non-accessible cars.

Already, today’s completely self-driving prototypes are not accessible.

There are two good articles on this discussion:

I would hope that in any policy and development discussions in government and among businesses, strong consideration be given to the market segment that represents 15-20% of the U.S. population and who could benefit the most from a self-driving world.

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