Self-driving cars could help employ millions of people with disabilities, cut federal costs

Getting through a big city like Washington, DC can be difficult for people with disabilities – just ask Amy Scherer.

Scherer, a senior attorney at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), uses a wheelchair and has some visual limitations that prevent her from driving. While D.C. does have wheelchair accessible taxis, their availability has decreased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sometimes I have no choice but to telecommute simply because of the transportation barriers, even though I live in a big urban city,” she said. “I had to miss both professional and personal engagements simply because the meeting place was not on the subway line and there were no wheelchair accessible taxis available at the time. I literally had no other options.”

Lack of reliable transportation makes getting to and from work a challenge for employees with disabilities. It has also served as a significant barrier to employment for many of them, contributing to an unemployment rate double that of people without disabilities.

However, a recent report suggests that the widespread availability of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could alleviate this ongoing problem, increase the employment of people with disabilities and strengthen the wider economy.

The National Disability Institute (NDI) study found that widespread, reliable and affordable self-driving cars would add 9.2 million more workers to the workforce. This includes 4.4 million direct jobs for people with disabilities.

The expansion of AVs, the study found, would generate nearly $93 billion in annual federal tax revenue — including new personal income tax, Social Security tax, excise tax and duties. It would also reduce federal spending by $27.8 billion, including spending cuts from the Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability programs due to increased wages for people with disabilities.

Thomas Foley, executive director of NDI, expressed excitement about the potential impact of technology and how it can begin to remove a critical barrier to employment for millions of people with disabilities.

“Simply put, fully accessible and autonomous vehicles hold the promise of completely changing the economic landscape for millions of people with disabilities and their families,” he said.

How did the AVs perform in the test series?

The NDI study focused on Level 4 and Level 5 AVs. Level 4 vehicles are “self-driving” under most conditions, although a human can remotely control the vehicle if needed. Level 5 AVs do not require human attention and can be used by people with disabilities, regardless of whether they hold a driver’s license.

Manufacturing companies Cruise — a subsidiary of General Motors that commissioned the study — and Waymo have several Level 4 robotics in San Francisco and Phoenix, though they are not customized specifically for people with disabilities. Current technology has had mixed results so far.

GM and Cruise are designing a version of the taxi that will serve people who use wheelchairs and those who otherwise need extra assistance. There is no timetable for their availability.

Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement: “Profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off.”

Kenneth Shiotani, senior attorney for the NDRN, explained that the expansion of AVs has been “right around the corner” for many years, but several companies that make AVs have gone out of business in the past year.

He added that “all or a very significant percentage” of Level 4 and Level 5 AVs should be accessible to people who use wheelchairs, as public transport buses are today, to employ millions more people with disabilities.

“If AV supply was adequate and if rates were modest, then I think one of the main barriers to employment [for people with disabilities] will be removed,” Shiotani said.

Further development is needed

The NDI study notes that 38 states have passed legislation or had executive orders issued that allow AV testing, but many of those states still lack related regulation for commercial deployment of these vehicles.

GM has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to raise the cap on the number of vehicles it can deploy.

“Policy adjustments are needed for further AV testing that will inform adoption and scale production of these affordable transportation solutions,” Foley said.

Shiotani said employers could partner with AV transportation companies or transit agencies to help their own disabled workers commute to the office — similar to how tech companies provide luxury buses to their workers in Silicon Valley.

Organizations could also publicly advocate for AVs that are fully accessible to all passengers, especially people who use wheelchairs, he said.

“As Level 4 and 5 AVs become more common, they have the potential to make transportation for people with disabilities in rural areas who cannot financially support public transit systems much better, as a significant portion of the cost for public transport are the operators and Level 4 and 5 AVs will make operators unnecessary for many rural journeys,” Shiotani explained.

Scherer believes the potential and widespread availability of AVs can have a positive impact on disabled workers for years to come.

“I would welcome the opportunity to use safe, reliable AVs in the future,” she said. “We hope they will be more plentiful than wheelchair accessible taxis and provide another transport option for those of us who cannot drive.”

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