Driverless Cars: A Revolution For Persons With Disabilities

Adam Beck

May 12, 2016

Why Uber and now the pending advent of driverless cars will be game-changers for those who live with disabilities.

I still remember my first Uber ride. It was the summer of 2012 and nobody quite knew what to expect of this service that was brand new to Philadelphia. Friends on the west coast had talked about it some, but it seemed like the type of luxury that I might indulge on certain special occasions. Today, I take Uber several times per week. In the four years since then, talking about what Uber means for a particular industry or society at large has become a cliché trope of so-called “thought leadership” that aims to engage Millennials while illustrating a grandiose economic theory. I won’t pretend to have any grandiose theories about the sharing economy, but a recent conversation with the parent of a child with autism opened my eyes to a new way that services like Uber – and soon, self-driving cars – will be game-changers for people living with special needs. “My son feels so free now; there’s so much he can do without me,” she remarked. And it was all thanks to the Uber app.

Five years ago, before ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft were commonplace, most people living with a disability were restricted in many ways due to transportation limitations. Depending on the nature of the condition, many people had to live in an urban center where public transportation would be readily available or rely on parents, friends, neighbors or social workers to provide rides at designated times. Today, people with special needs may find greater independence – personal and financial – thanks to ride-sharing services. And that independence can only grow with the impending advent of self-driving cars.

This is not to say that ride-sharing services are always a viable option for many with disabilities, particularly given the checkered legal history that both Uber and Lyft have when it comes to discrimination based on physical disability. In theory and at law, services like these should be open to all and, in fact, should try to maximize opportunities within otherwise underserved markets, but in practice this is far too often not the case.

Even so, self-driving cars should eliminate discriminatory barriers, as technology, unlike people, lacks the ability to discriminate. Almost. There is growing consensus that self-driving cars, or mostly autonomous vehicles, will be on the road by 2020, if not sooner. That’s merely four iPhone releases from now. The technology offers the promise of mobility and independence for many – including those who are elderly or disabled – but that independence may not be doled out equally. Indeed, many people with disabilities, including blind people, may not be able to fully participate in the driverless car revolution. Disability advocacy groups, fortunately, have been vocal in supporting fully-automated vehicles that include the spectrum of special needs communities. That advocacy is presently focused on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which is considering regulations that would govern self-driving cars.

For many living with special needs, driverless cars - and for now, ride-sharing services can mean

  • Greater flexibility in choosing where and when to work
  • Expanded geographic living options
  • Independence in going to medical visits, shopping and other activities
  • Overall, greater equality and inclusion in society

So often, when new technology emerges, we think of how it will make our own lives easier or a task more convenient. Generally, attention to innovation focuses on the most obvious and immediate aspect of that innovation. When air conditioning became mainstream, few looked at that and said “this will result in greater political clout and new economies for states like Arizona and California.” Rather, we thought “this will make me nice and cool in the summer.” When Uber burst onto the scene only a few years ago, most people thought “how convenient is it to have a car pick you up with the push of a button?” For millions, however, these automobile innovations undoubtedly herald a new era of independence – and with that, a plethora of new considerations about how to live one’s life. Considerations that, at the very least, you can think about from the back seat of car.