ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN RFID JOURNAL (August 12, 2019)
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Making Autonomous Vehicles Accessible to Persons with Disabilities Will Bring New Business Opportunities and Legal Challenges to the Auto Industry
It is no longer a mystery that autonomous vehicles are the future of driving. As popular automotive manufacturers, such as General Motors, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, and BMW, develop and refine self-driving cars, the ride share giants Uber and Lyft are already testing such vehicles on their platforms. According to Allied Market Research, the autonomous vehicle market will grow from $54.23 billion to $556.67 billion over the next seven years. Few people realize, however, that this new market will become even more profitable if self-driving cars are built to accommodate persons with disabilities: many of whom will finally be able to get behind the wheel for the first time.
In the United States alone, more than 57 million people, approximately 20% of the country’s population, have a disability. The most recent government transport survey shows that six million of these individuals have inadequate access to safe, accessible, and reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural and suburban areas, where public transit and ride sharing are limited or unavailable. A recent study conducted by the Ruderman Foundation estimates that as fully autonomous vehicles penetrate the mainstream market, they could open two million new opportunities for persons with disabilities. Accessible self-driving cars will also enable individuals with disabilities to participate in a wide variety of educational, cultural, civic, entertainment, and community events previously unavailable to them do to limited transportation options. In short, these cars, if manufactured with persons with disabilities in mind, have potential to transform the lives of millions (or perhaps even billions) of lives around the world.
Because of the enhanced independence and flexibility these cars offer to individuals with disabilities, it is expected that self-driving cars will be in high demand in the disability community once they enter the mainstream market, offering equipment suppliers a new source of revenue. They will be especially useful to people who are currently ineligible to obtain a driver’s license because of their disability, such as those who are legally blind. This increased demand is expected to have a strong, positive financial impact on everyone in the automotive supply chain. Specifically, if automotive manufacturers take accessibility seriously, and if they creatively advertise the accessibility features present in their products, persons with disabilities will be eager to try them out, thereby increasing the marketability of, and interest in, these vehicles. Equipment suppliers will similarly benefit as their reputation for creating and implementing adaptive solutions increases. Finally, ride share companies, mass transit operators, and other service providers will save money by no longer having to rely on human drivers. As a result, they will be in a better position to expand service: both geographically and by adding vehicles to their existing fleet.
To take advantage of these benefits, however, manufacturers and equipment suppliers must ensure that persons with disabilities can use them. Although fully autonomous vehicles will be able to get from Point A to Point B and maneuver around obstacles without human intervention, individuals with physical, sensory, cognitive, and other limitations will still need to summon and find them, program destinations, and interact with on-board navigation, route information, and entertainment systems. They will also need to obtain emergency information in accessible formats. Additionally, if these vehicles cannot accommodate wheelchairs, persons who are unable to walk will not be able to use them.
While there are no accessibility standards governing autonomous vehicles at this time, automotive manufacturers and equipment suppliers should install assistive features accommodating the widest range of disabilities possible to maximize long-term revenue from self-driving cars. Title I of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which establishes accessibility requirements for advanced communication services and the equipment used to provide them to consumers, offers useful guidance on the scope of disabilities that can and should be accommodated. At a minimum, self-driving cars should be fully operable under the following specific circumstances:
· Operable with no vision: Manufacturers and equipment suppliers should provide at least one mode that does not require user vision. This can be accomplished by installing screen-reading software, which conveys visual information via audio and/or Braille output, and allows a blind person to interact with on-screen menus and type text using special touch screen gestures, a physical keyboard, and/or voice commands.
· Operable with low vision: This can be achieved by installing screen magnification software. It is important that low vision operators have the ability to adjust the magnification level to suit their needs.
· Operable with little or no color perception
· Operable with limited or no hearing: The user interface should offer visual flash and/or vibration alerts, as appropriate. In addition, any feature that transmits audio, including the on-board entertainment system and screen reader for the blind, should support hearing aids.
· Operable with limited manual dexterity: Self-driving cars should provide at least one mode that does not require user fine motor control or simultaneous actions (e.g., one-handed mode and/or voice control).
· Operable with limited reach and strength
· Operable with a prosthetic device: Controls should be operable without requiring body contact or close body proximity. This can easily be accomplished with voice control.
· Operable without time-dependent controls: Controls should offer at least one mode that does not require a response time or allows response time to be bypassed or adjusted by the operator over a wide range, as long as the extra time would not create a hazardous road condition.
· Operable without speech
· Operable with limited cognitive skills: Self-driving cars should offer at least one mode that minimizes the cognitive, memory, language, and learning skills required of the operator.
Additionally, to the maximum extent possible, these accessibility features should be designed to work together. For example, the screen reader for the blind and the screen magnifier for low vision operators should be able to run simultaneously, such that low vision users can use speech and magnification at the same time if needed. Finally, websites and mobile apps used to summon and otherwise interact with autonomous vehicles need to offer the same wide range of accessibility features. The above recommended list of accessibility features should not, of course, be considered exhaustive.
While autonomous vehicles offer a promising future for the automotive industry, they also present various legal challenges that will need to be addressed. First, driving laws will have to be amended to allow the blind and those with certain other disabilities to obtain operating licenses. Moreover, since humans will no longer be the primary actors, it remains unclear whether operators, entities involved in the chain of distribution, or both will be liable for accidents caused by these vehicles, or how the auto insurance market will evolve in response to this technological development. Additionally, safety laws and regulations may need to be updated. In particular, since autonomous vehicles will be connected to the Internet, new legal standards will likely be adopted to protect riders from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
These issues are complex, and compliance requires a careful analysis of applicable law. Consulting an attorney or consultant with the necessary expertise would help to ease your business into the new regulatory regime.
 Christina Mercer & Tom Macaulay, The Companies Developing Self-Driving Cars, Techworld (June 27, 2019), https://www.techworld.com/picture-gallery/data/-companies-working-on-driverless-cars-3641537.
 Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People with Disabilities, Ruderman Family Foundation (Jan. 15, 2017), https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/self-driving-cars-the-impact-on-people-with-disabilities.
 See generally ITU News, A Driving License for Autonomous Vehicles? Towards a ‘Turing Test’ for AI on our Roads, ITU News (Jul. 26, 2019), https://news.itu.int/a-driving-license-for-autonomous-vehicles-towards-a-turing-test-for-ai-on-our-roads (discussing whether artificial intelligence drivers should be held to the same standards as their human counterparts).