Traversing a big city like Washington, D.C., can be difficult for people with disabilities—just ask Amy Scherer.
Scherer, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), uses a wheelchair and has some visual limitations that prevent her from driving. While the District of Columbia has wheelchair-accessible cabs, their availability has declined since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
"Sometimes I have no choice but to work remotely simply because of transportation barriers, even though I live in a large, urban city," she said. "I have had to miss both professional and personal engagements simply because the meeting location was not on the Metro line, and there were no available wheelchair-accessible cabs at that time. I literally had no other options."
A lack of reliable transportation makes getting to and from work challenging 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 individuals without disabilities.
However, a recent report suggested that the widespread availability of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could alleviate this ongoing issue, boost employment for people with disabilities and strengthen the broader economy.
The study, by the National Disability Institute (NDI), revealed that widely available, reliable and affordable self-driving cars would bring 9.2 million more workers into the workforce. This includes 4.4 million direct jobs for individuals with a disability.
The expansion of AVs, the study indicated, would generate nearly $93 billion in annual federal tax revenue—including new personal income tax, social security tax, excise tax and customs duties. It would also reduce federal spending by $27.8 billion, including reductions in spending from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance programs due to increased wages for people with disabilities.
Thomas Foley, the NDI's executive director, expressed excitement for the potential impact of the technology and how it could begin to eliminate a critical barrier to employment for millions of people with disabilities.
"Simply put, fully accessible and autonomous vehicles hold the promise to be a complete economic game-changer for millions of people with disabilities and their families," he said.
How Have AVs Fared in Trial Runs?
The NDI study focused on Level 4 and Level 5 AVs. Level 4 vehicles are "self-driving" under most conditions, though a human can remotely operate the vehicle if necessary. Level 5 AVs do not require human attention and could be used by individuals with a disability regardless of whether they hold a driver's license.
Manufacturing companies Cruise—a subsidiary of General Motors, which commissioned the study—and Waymo deploy several Level 4 robotaxis in San Francisco and Phoenix, although they are not customized specifically for people with disabilities. The current technology has had mixed results thus far.
GM and Cruise are designing a version of the taxi to 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 staff attorney for the NDRN, explained that the expansion of AVs has been "just around the corner" for many years, but several companies that manufacture AVs have gone out of business in the last year.
He added that "all or a very significant percentage" of Level 4 and Level 5 AVs would need to be accessible for individuals who use wheelchairs, like public transit buses are today, to employ millions more people with disabilities.
"If the supply of AVs was adequate, and if fares were modest, then I think one of the major barriers to employment [for people with disabilities] would be removed," Shiotani said.
Further Development Needed
The NDI study noted that 38 states have passed legislation or have had executive orders enacted that permit AV testing, but many of these states still lack associated regulation for commercially deploying 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 to further AV testing that will inform adoption and manufacturing at scale of these accessible transportation solutions," Foley said.
Shiotani said employers could partner with AV transportation companies or transit agencies to help their own workers with disabilities travel to the office—much like how technology companies have provided 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.
"When Level 4 and 5 AVs become more ubiquitous, they have the potential to make transportation for people with disabilities in rural areas that cannot financially support public transit systems much better because the significant part of the cost of public transit is the operators, and Level 4 and 5 AVs will make operators unnecessary for many rural trips," Shiotani explained.
Scherer believes the potential and widespread availability of AVs can have a positive impact on workers with disabilities for years to come.
"I would welcome the opportunity to use safe, reliable AVs in the future," she said. "Hopefully, they would be more plentiful than wheelchair-accessible taxis and provide another transportation option for those of us who are unable to drive."