Every day, the world moves a little bit closer to what once seemed like an impossible dream: driverless cars. The UK is already taking small steps towards this new technology, with a driverless car having a (successful!) test run in Milton Keynes in 2016. But, in among all the discussion about how they would function on busy roads and how they would be made safe for pedestrians, one aspect of their functionality has been overlooked. They could potentially be a lifeline for people with disabilities.
Technology already has proven to be, quite literally, a lifesaver for those who have disabling conditions. Motorised wheelchairs help people who cannot walk get out of their houses and have a social life; screen readers transcribe web pages for blind people; hearing aids are a tremendous help to those with hearing difficulties. The impact that driverless cars could have on disabled people can barely be overstated – even the best motorised wheelchairs aren’t built for sustained travel. The idea of a wheelchair user being able to travel across the country in their own car, without dealing with the difficulties of public transport, seems almost too good to be true.
Public transport for disabled people improves every year, but it’s still far from perfect. A train journey which, for an able-bodied person would seem like nothing, could be a massive uphill battle for a person in a wheelchair. Having to make arrangements for getting on and off the train, even possibly getting out of the station, and running the risk of delays or inconvenience is far beyond what a non-disabled person could expect when travelling. On top of this, it’s also difficult to find wheelchair-friendly taxis, so goodbye to casual nights out.
The emotional benefits of driverless cars to disabled people, likewise, can barely be overstated. Many disabled people feel lonely and isolated because of the difficulties they face in simply leaving their living area. Difficulties, which the presence of a driverless car could greatly alleviate. The level of independence provided by a self-driving car could, similarly, dramatically improve the mental health of people who have long felt “trapped” inside their own houses.
However, unfortunately, nothing about driverless cars is really set in stone yet. Laws about who would be allowed behind the wheel – so to speak – have yet to be hashed out. There is a possibility that all cars would require one able-bodied person to be present in the car, in case of emergency. This could lead to difficulties for those who live, and wish to travel, alone. Nissan, one of the largest automobile companies in the world, has already stated their self-driving cars would require an able-bodied driver.
On the other hand, Google are currently working on self-driving cars which would be fully self-driving, and require no human intervention at all. A spokesperson for General Motors has said that the company believe they’re just years away from “fully automated cars that drive themselves under all circumstances,” as well as having, “A lot of societal benefits are possible.” A large proportion of those societal benefits would be to disabled people. Hopefully, it will only be a short amount of time before the sort of independence that able-bodied people enjoy is available to the disabled, too.