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AV companies are making progress on accessibility challenges

A woman in a wheelchair uses a ramp on a Renault EZ-GO concept car
Photo: Renault

AV companies are understandably focused on trying to perfect their technology to address trust issues among the general public, but meanwhile, they're working on designs for those who could benefit most from mobility technology — the elderly and people with disabilities.

Why it matters: AVs will need to have accessible control panels, chassis modifications that accommodate wheelchairs, and advanced human-machine communication technology, not only to realize industry promises around mobility access, but also to be ADA-compliant once they begin to operate as commercial transportation services.

Where it stands: Automakers are focused on rolling out technology that will assuage concerns about safety and will build enthusiasm around the driverless experience. If the general public never warms up to AVs, they won't be available for anyone at all.

What we're watching: While auto shows have yet to showcase accessibility tech, there is reason to believe the industry is making progress:

  • General Motors, Ford, Nuro, NVIDIA, Uber, Waymo, Daimler and Zoox have submitted voluntary safety self-assessments to DOT/NHTSA that have described accommodations for riders who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing.
  • DOT's AV 3.0 regulatory guidance repeatedly refers to accessible vehicle design, an indication that they’ll be monitoring that as commercial services launch.
  • Toyota, Renault, and VW have announced concept cars that could be wheelchair accessible.

The bottom line: At both CES and at the Detroit Auto Show, accessibility improvements to AV technology were absent, but that doesn't mean the need for accommodations is being ignored.

Henry Claypool is a policy expert affiliated with UCSF and the AAPD, where he works on disability advocacy to automakers, and a former director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability.