If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past few months, you’ll have noticed that alongside all the usual doom and gloom there’s been a lot of excited chatter about self-driving cars. So what exactly are self-driving cars, how advanced is the technology, and what could they mean for disabled people in Shropshire and beyond? Let me give you the low down.
What if a blind person could travel alone in an autonomous car?
At the age of 17, thanks to fundraising efforts by my local community and help from Motability, I was able to get my first van, which was specially adapted to suit my specific needs, with controls that I could operate despite my limited mobility.
For many disabled people though, driving, even with a specially adapted vehicle, simply isn’t an option. If your movement is severely limited or you’re blind, getting behind the wheel is impossible and thus leaves you entirely reliant on other people to get from A to B.
But what if this weren’t the case? What if a blind person could travel alone in an autonomous car? Would this be safe? And who would be liable if there was an accident, the ‘driver’ or the car manufacturer? As you can see, when it comes to self-driving cars, there are many questions that need to be answered, but let’s start with the basics.
Self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles have been a concept in the world of Sci-Fi for many decades now; remember those creepy taxis in Total Recall? In reality though, getting cars to drive themselves without human intervention hasn’t been such an easy feat.
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Driverless cars could be ready as early as 2018.
Many large corporations have had driverless cars in production for years now, most famously Elon Musk’s multi-billion dollar company, Tesla Motors. Determined to make electric cars sexy, while also creating the world’s most attractive driverless vehicle, Musk believes that Tesla’s driverless model will be ready as early as 2018.
The company has recently suffered a setback however, when one of their models, an electric car that can be switched to ‘autopilot mode’ was allegedly involved in a fatal collision that killed its driver. In Tesla’s defence, the cars instruction manual states that drivers shouldn’t remove their hands from the wheel, even when the car is in autopilot mode.
The car however failed to see a large white truck in front of it because of the glare of the sun, which obviously led to some hard questions for both Tesla Motors and CEO Musk.Despite this setback though, current technology is improving at a rapid pace and many other firms such as Google, Honda and Hyundai are also getting in on the action.
While many of their models are due to be released by 2020, the infrastructure that would allow people to drive them on UK roads is likely to be a long way behind. In order to operate safely, all driverless cars would need to be able to “communicate” with each other via a cloud like WiFi system, which simply doesn’t exist at this point in time, though with improvements in tech it could be possible within a decade.
57,000 disabled people in Shropshire could benefit.
But what will the advent of driverless vehicles mean for disabled people in Shropshire? According to data from the 2011 Census, 18.6% of people in Shropshire describe themselves as having a long-term limiting illness.
This corresponds almost exactly with the UK population at large, where 19% of people are classified as having a disability. So having access to driverless vehicles could have a real impact on the lives of nearly 57,000 people in Shropshire alone.
Driverless cars must be accessible to everyone.
Whether disabled people will be able to ‘pilot’ driverless vehicles on their own however, is currently up for debate. Over in America, the National Council on Disability is seeking to get ahead of the game by working in partnership with car manufacturers in order to ensure that their driverless cars will be accessible.
In fact, July saw the first blind driver of an autonomous vehicle take to the road in a prototype. Not everyone is so keen for disabled people to ‘get behind the wheel’ though, and draft legislation in California proposes that each driverless car will have to have a driver.
This flies in the face of everything Google, a company who are very keen to make their cars accessible to all, have been trying to achieve. In fact, once their prototypes have passed the necessary tests, they are hoping to remove the brakes and steering wheel altogether, making human intervention impossible and thus their cars accessible to all.
So, while the technology may be a decade away, it is reassuring to know that car manufacturers are already having the necessary debates and that some, at least, are responding to the needs of disabled people.
It seems the general public are also coming round to the idea of autonomous vehicles, as each time they are polled, the percentage of people willing to try them is generally going up.
Personally, the idea of being a passenger in an autonomous vehicle both excites and terrifies me. While I’m always up for trying new things, and I’d definitely be willing to give one a spin around a track, being in heavy traffic on the A5 into Shrewsbury is a different kettle of fish.
The opportunities and advantages that driverless cars could offer disabled people though are enormous, and with so many barriers in place when it comes to public transport, driverless cars could be truly liberating.
Like everyone though, I will need to see a lot of evidence of their safety – – before I get in one. Another important question that will need to be answered, is who will be liable if there’s an accident? If a car is fully autonomous, surely it should be the manufacturer who is held responsible if the system fails? But if there’s a manual override button and a disabled person is unable to operate it, what then?
It will also be interesting to see where these vehicles catch on, as I believe it is likely to be mostly in urban locations and therefore unlikely that you’ll see them cruising through the Shropshire hills or through towns like Ironbridge or Ludlow.
I also think it’ll be a while before people will buy their own autonomous vehicle, mostly because they’ll initially be very expensive. Where I do think autonomous vehicles will catch on though, will be in the taxi industry. In fact, Uber are also working on a driverless vehicle, which I hope will be fully accessible to disabled people.
So, while I believe that the driverless revolution will come to pass, as human beings are quite good at adapting to change, I think it’ll take longer than companies like Tesla seem to think.
The benefits for disabled people though are potentially huge, but it is integral that car manufacturers take disabled people’s needs on board at this early stage, so by the time these cars are mainstream, they are fully accessible and any potential issues have been completely ironed out. Personally, I can’t wait to see how far things progress in the next decade!
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