THE BLOG
10/24/2016 03:15 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2017

Self-Driving Cars: Transforming Mobility For The Elderly And People With Disabilities

By Jules Polonetsky and Henry Claypool

The federal government recently released guidance that will hasten the roll out of self-driving cars on American roads. The roads will not be filled with driverless cars tomorrow, but these smart, efficient vehicles are already operating in some cities and they will become widespread more quickly than most drivers think. Automakers and technology companies are making significant strides towards the connected car future. New sensor and autonomous technologies are being announced weekly, and the Administration has made commitments to support these developments and accelerate their roll out.

Sensor and autonomous technologies can transform automotive safety and convenience for preexisting American drivers, but they can do more; they can increase mobility for the elderly and Americans with disabilities who may be constrained from driving altogether.

As most people take having transportation options as a given, people with disabilities and the elderly may benefit most from these new developments. Autonomous driving technology has the potential to transform life for populations that are not able to get a driver's license today. People with epilepsy and blind people are constantly managing the logistical challenges associated with getting groceries, taking the kids to school or going out for the evening - or just not going out at all. The employment rate for people with disabilities continues to decline even after the modest recovery from the great recession. Game changing technology has the potential to halt this decline and hopefully allow more people with disabilities to go to work each day as these barriers to transportation are taken down by technology.

Of course, new technology needs to be safe before it can be rolled out to a broad set of users. And privacy commitments will be necessary to ensure that the data used to power the sophisticated algorithms that enable autonomous vehicle navigation will be protected. But the measures used to manage safety and data must be informed by the needs of both the general consumers who are going to benefit from the safety, and the benefits to people with disabilities who will gain from the mobility enabled by truly driverless cars.

To address some of the concerns about data management in connected vehicles, the Auto Alliance and Global Automakers last year released "Privacy Principles For Vehicle Technologies And Services," to establish baseline principles for privacy in this area. However, some critics worried that the pervasive focus more on technicalities of autonomous vehicles than actual safety concerns have led to a scenario where these vehicles will only be driven by individuals with licenses. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has taken this path with its proposed regulation for autonomous vehicles that require a human driver to be inside the car at all times. However, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) seems to be on a wiser path. In a formal letter, the DOT allowed for the possibility that autonomous vehicles could operate on U.S. roads without a human driver at the wheel. In fact, Sam Schmidt recently received the first license restricted to an autonomous vehicle in the United States.

The DOT's recently released guidance, Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, provides guidelines for the safe deployment of automated safety technology. The DOT emphasizes that technologies with proven, data-supported benefits that would make roads safer should be encouraged. The guidelines contain a new 15-point safety assessment that includes a call for vehicle manufacturers and others to ensure basic privacy protections, such as transparency and choice. The guidance was developed with expert input from industry and other stakeholders and effectively opens up a wealth of new opportunities to transportation for persons with disabilities by thoughtfully considering the unique needs of this population in the design, development, and policy for autonomous vehicles.

The DOT's approach means vital technology could reach those in need much sooner than it could under some states' rules. Although the states have often played a valuable role in rushing to be the first in consumer protection issues, here hasty overreaction could slow and limit the advances that will save lives and empower people with disabilities.

This dynamic is at the core of the development and deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. If measures like the requirements in California that a licensed driver be behind the wheel at all times with no parallel process for the fully autonomous vehicles to continue road testing, people with disabilities will once again be left behind waiting for the technology to be refined for licensed drivers before it can be applied to those with the greatest mobility needs.

With reasonable rules that that take into account public safety, while allowing fully autonomous vehicles on the road now, more people with disabilities that cannot drive will be able to experience the opportunity that may have been nonexistent in the face of a disability. The lack of mobility after an accident can be a crushing blow in some ways equal to the original injury. If technology can help alleviate that, we should not stand in the way.

The benefits for facilitating the deployment of autonomous vehicles are so compelling and policymakers should be doing all they can to smooth and speed the way for these technologies to improve as quickly as possible. It is necessary to ensure that we benefit from this technology when it can safely be used to transport populations--young and old--who currently can't drive. Applying current best practices around data privacy, paired with existing federal enforcement mechanisms, should facilitate, not stall, this opportunity.

Jules Polonetsky is Chief Executive Officer of Future of Privacy Forum, a non-profit organization that serves as a catalyst for privacy leadership and scholarship, advancing principled data practices in support of emerging technologies.

Henry Claypool is policy director of the Community Living Policy Center at UCSF, former Executive Vice President of the American Association of People with Disabilities and former Senior Advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services.