For Carol Tyson, a recent proposal that would advance the commercialization of self-driving vehicles brought familiar pangs of frustration.
Like so many others, Tyson, an advocate for people with disabilities, believes autonomous transportation holds the potential to unlock newfound independence and mobility for millions of Americans. However, blueprints for that future are missing vital components, namely vehicle designs and regulatory frameworks that address considerations for riders with disabilities.
Transportation leaders have a long history of neglecting the needs of people with disabilities, and advocates such as Tyson grew alarmed again in October when the California Public Utilities Commission issued a proposal that would have allowed autonomous vehicle operators to charge fares and offer shared trips: At least at the outset, it did not include disability access requirements.
"Promises of mobility access that could literally transform disabled people's lives without plans or real commitments to safety, accessibility and equity is infuriating," said Tyson, a government affairs liaison with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. "It does not engender trust that the 'mobility revolution' will benefit everyone."
But that's exactly what industry executives and government leaders have promised. They've touted autonomous vehicles as a dramatically safer means of transportation, a tool for ensuring that the more than 25 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities can better access mobility. People with disabilities are encouraged by the vision. Now, they're waiting.
While self-driving technology has been under development for more than a decade, concrete efforts to deliver an accessible future have only recently begun in earnest.
Prominent among them is the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inclusive Design Challenge, which offers $5 million in prize money to innovators. The department sought applications between April and October and is expected to select semifinalists in a matter of weeks.
But with test fleets of autonomous vehicles already populating roads in larger numbers and regulators considering rules that do not address accessibility, Tyson laments that people with disabilities have already been left behind.
"The reason I don't feel better is because we have companies testing and deploying across the country, and none of them are accessible. No city or state even requires an accessibility plan," she said. "It's extremely frustrating."