Safety first? AV Start Act veers off course for disabled riders

Safety first? AV Start Act veers off course for disabled riders
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The auto and tech industries, along with their allies in Congress, are trying to hit the gas on legislation that would allow companies to sell driverless cars exempt from crucial safety standards.

Proponents of the bill, the AV START Act (S. 1885), frequently tout the potential for these vehicles to provide increased mobility for members of the disability community — a goal that, as a wheelchair user, I wholeheartedly share. However, the AV START Act does little to deliver on this promise and will in fact put people with disabilities in harm’s way. 

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Based on the most recent U.S. Census, more than 55 million Americans have disabilities. Like any segment of society, this community is made up of people with a wide variety of needs. While one day driverless cars may improve mobility for some people, without assurances that they will be universally accessible, these vehicles could offer little or no assistance to others. And that’s assuming that driverless cars attain a sophistication and reliability in which they safely navigate the roads and handle all driving conditions — something that current technology is nowhere near capable of managing.

The disability community has been at this juncture in the past, and if history serves as a guide, these bright promises will prove to be mostly empty. 

Even with enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a survey published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies found that nearly half of participants reported public transportation did not get them where they needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. Moreover, it’s still far too difficult to find an accessible cab or rideshare. Putting an autonomous system in a rideshare vehicle without making it possible for people to get in and travel safely while sitting in their wheelchairs won’t increase our ways to get around. In fact, if rideshare use continues to grow, public transit use could drop, further limiting transportation options.

Moreover, a number of lawsuits are currently pending against ridesharing companies in major metropolitan areas alleging that they fail to provide sufficient accessibility for wheelchair users. It’s hard to believe this alleged defiance will magically disappear when a computer is the driver. That is why I am so disheartened that, despite their lofty claims, there is no guarantee from the industry, or assurances in the AV START Act, that these long-standing issues will be resolved.

Passing this deficient legislation will be yet another step backward. 

As written, the AV START Act has the potential to bring about a catastrophic scenario in which millions of unproven driverless cars that fail to meet federal safety rules are allowed to operate on public roads. Even standards related to occupant protection could be bypassed. When crashes happen, we depend on safety features such as seat belts and airbags to protect us. Yet, under this bill, manufacturers could sell vehicles that lack these lifesaving standards and others. And, passengers whose disabilities make them more susceptible to injury would be especially endangered. 

Compounding these sweeping and unnecessary exemptions is the failure of the bill to require minimum levels of performance for these experimental cars. Commonsense improvements to the AV START Act must be made including safety standards for cybersecurity and vehicle electronics. Also, there should be a standard to ensure driverless cars can “see” and react properly to the driving environment, including people who use a variety of wheelchairs, bicyclists, pedestrians, first responders, road repair workers, animals, and more. Even if you never get inside a driverless car, everyone will share the roads with them.

The reality is that the AV START Act lacks meaningful measures to ensure that driverless cars are safe and accessible for all people, including those with disabilities. I have devoted a significant part of my life toward advancing technology to improve the mobility of those of us unable to walk by improving wheelchair design and teaching others how to do so as well. The AV START Act will not drive us toward that goal.

Ralf Hotchkiss, a MacArthur Award-winning engineer and inventor, is the co-founder of Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a company that produces open source wheelchairs in developing countries using local resources.