WASHINGTON — It was an unintended moment that drove home one of the most powerful use cases for automated vehicle technology.
On Wednesday, Kent Keyser, public policy fellow for the United Spinal Association, was slated to be part of a panel discussion at a mobility-themed event preceding the Washington Auto Show.
The stage was elevated, accessible by a staircase. Keyser, however, uses a wheelchair, a result of a spinal cord injury. That fact appeared to catch organizers off guard. They made a hasty attempt to set up a wheelchair lift, but with the minutes ticking, moderator Mark Rosekind, a former NHTSA administrator, moved the entire panel down to the floor in front of the stage to join Keyser.
The gaffe helped illustrate a point sometimes missing from conversations about new mobility: its ability to increase options for people with disabilities, for the elderly and for others.
Much of the talk around autonomous vehicles has centered on their technical feasibility, but this is a revolution that needs human faces and human stories, such as Keyser's, to raise public acceptance of the technology.
A 2017 report by the think tank Securing America's Future Energy and the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 4.3 million people in the U.S. have trouble getting to medical appointments because of transportation barriers.
Keyser says autonomous vehicles hold the promise of removing such obstacles.
"Think of the opportunities if you have safe, on demand, reliable and accessible transportation for everyone in the country. For me, it would transform my world," Keyser told the audience.
"I've been marooned many times, many places, many days of the year because the current transportation system — even the backup system, the paratransit system — is unreliable. AV is a promise for adding that reliability that we need to concentrate on."
Fellow panelist Robbie Diamond, CEO of the think tank, said people need to make a personal connection with the AV movement. "I bet you every human in the world has known someone who died in their family of a drunk driver, or in a car accident, or has a disability, or is elderly and you have to take away the keys. I don't think we talk in that language."
As Washington grapples with regulations to allow robot-driven autos, we need to keep that sense of human fragility in the conversation.