Just a few years ago, self-driving cars seemed like a vision from a futuristic fantasy film rather than a realistic possibility. Yet in this era of rapid technological change, it now appears anything is possible, and that includes the prospect of self-driving cars being on the road in the UK as soon as 2025.

Self-driving cars could significantly change the way we travel, potentially making it more accessible for everyone and increasing the mobility of disabled people or those who can’t drive for various health reasons. This can improve the independence and quality of life for the young, the elderly, and those with restricted mobility. 

There are many other promising advantages of self-driving vehicles. They have the potential to enhance road safety, because they are guided by sensors, cameras, and artificial intelligence; thus eliminating human error. They are designed to navigate traffic more efficiently, reducing congestion and journey times, and lowering carbon emissions.

However, not everyone is convinced that self-driving vehicles will provide the transport solution that disabled people have long been hoping for. Despite manufacturers of such vehicles deliberately using accessibility as a marketing angle for their products, many questions remain as to just how suitable they will actually be. 

The first question is whether the standard design of the vehicles will ensure they are physically accessible for disabled people, who may need extra room to transfer from a wheelchair and extra seating space. Will a disabled person be able to access the operating system and what would happen in an emergency situation?

Transport for All has addressed some of these concerns, although of course no one really knows what the answers will be yet. There is an opportunity for designers and engineers to consider the needs of disabled people in the earliest planning stages, involving them in testing and seeking their feedback and opinion. 

Another major question is whether the vehicles will be a financially viable prospect for disabled people. Disabled people already face huge financial obstacles, with extra living costs and reduced earning opportunities. It is probable that self-driving vehicles will be unaffordable for the vast majority.

It may be that most self-driving vehicles are shared or hired rather than privately owned, but this may mean that cheaper public transport options are neglected by the government. This will be detrimental to the independence of many disabled people.  

The Disability News Service reports that two disabled peers, Lord Holmes and Baroness Brinton, have warned that new legislation on self-driving vehicles should be amended to include a “statement of accessibility principles” that is drawn up in consultation with disabled people.

Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Holmes said:  “Automated vehicles are either accessible, or they should not be pursued. They have such potential to enable mobility through technology, transforming people’s lives, be they older people, disabled people or any member of our society.”

“If accessibility is not the golden thread that runs through all their development and deployment, this project should not proceed any further.”

He added: “We have spent many decades putting right inaccessible buildings, infrastructure and public realm that was built and conceived of long before accessibility, inclusion and inclusive by design were even considered, let alone deployed.”

“That is still a work in progress, but we need to be absolutely certain that we are not potentially building new systems, vehicles and infrastructure that are inaccessible by design.”

Lord Holmes pointed out that for the vehicles to be accessible to all, measures such as dropped kerbs at embarking and drop-off points, and a fully accessible user interface of the booking platform should be included. 

His fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, former president of the Liberal Democrats, who supported his amendment, said: “This is not something that affects a few people; it is a major, really important part of automated vehicles, increasingly so as we become an elderly society, because it is less likely that people will be able to make their own journeys.”

She added: “One reason why so many disabled people cannot travel around is because they do not have access to the right vehicles.”

The proposed amendments were supported by Lord Tunnicliffe, a labour shadow transport minister. Lord Davis, a junior Tory transport minister, said that the measures in the bill already provided scope to consider accessibility.

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