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Episode 2: Will Autonomous Vehicles Transform the Lives of Millions of People with Disabilities?

Monday October 22nd, 2018

As 2 Million People with disability report never leaving their home, Self-Driving cars may just be the game-changer. Jay is joined by experts Dr. Miriam Heyman and Amitai Bin-Nun to discuss the impact Autonomous Vehicles can have and what exactly we are waiting for?

 

Guests:

Miriam Heyman, Ph.D.  is a Senior Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, where she is responsible for the oversight of programs related to disability inclusion. She has published research findings related to employment and the well-being of people with disabilities in several journals, including the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Early Child Development and Care, and The Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation. Miriam is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston College, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate psychology courses.

 

Amitai Bin-Nun, Ph.D. is Vice President at Autonomous Vehicles and Mobility Innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), which seeks to accelerate the deployment of vehicle automation and maximize the energy security and social benefits of the technology. Amitai is a former Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program and previously served as an AAAS Fellow at the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

 

Transcript:

Jay Ruderman: Welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host Jay Ruderman and on today’s show we will address self-driving cars. We all think of self-driving cars as a thing of the future. Maybe it came to The Jetsons, but they are reality. They are being developed and they will become a reality in the next coming years. We know that the American with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and yet we know that six million people with disability, according to a recent survey, have difficulty getting access to transportation. And we know that transportation is the key to employment in this country.

Jay Ruderman: Self-driving cars can provide an unprecedented mobility so that many people with various disabilities can enter the workforce. In order to talk about transportation and sort of broaden the issue of why it’s so important for employment and inclusion and preventing segregation of people with disabilities, I’m joined by my guest. A program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, who has received her PhD in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology from Boston College. I welcome Dr. Miriam Heyman. And thank you for joining us today.

Miriam Heyman: Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman: So Miriam, let’s talk about the big picture. Why is transportation such a big deal for people with disabilities?

Miriam Heyman: Well, I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said that this is an issue of civil rights and social justice. Mitchell Ross who was a transportation expert at New York University has been quoted as saying that, “In New York, it is far more important to have a MetroCard than a college degree for economic mobility.” Because as you pointed out, transportation is key to people’s ability to get to work. And almost two million people with disabilities in this country report never leaving their home. So this is an issue, transportation is an issue about basic dignity and independence.

Miriam Heyman: Google is developing technology for self-driving cars now and they offered a man in California with a disability a ride in a self-driving car and the Google team was prepared for an exotic request, but yet this person requested to go to the dry cleaners and to go to Taco Bell. So really this is about people’s basic ability to get to work, to live their life and to interact with the public.

Jay Ruderman: You mentioned like cities. So in Boston or New York or San Francisco or other cities that have major public transportation networks, some of them are more accessible for people with disabilities, some of them are less accessible, but those are in the cities. What about people in the suburbs and the rural part of America and other parts of the world, who don’t have access to public transportation and in essence are segregated?

Jay Ruderman: You mentioned like cities. So in Boston or New York or San Francisco or other cities that have major public transportation networks, some of them are more accessible for people with disabilities, some of them are less accessible, but those are in the cities. What about people in the suburbs and the rural part of America and other parts of the world, who don’t have access to public transportation and in essence are segregated?

Miriam Heyman: Yes. Absolutely. But first I think it’s important to question that assumption that in big cities where there are these major transportation networks, that these transportation systems are actually accessible. But in New York City the transit agency reported that within a three-month time period in 2014, there were 2,646 elevator outages and more than 6,000 escalator outages. So even when there are these networks, we know that the public transportation systems are not living to that potential. And you’re right, that’s exacerbated in rural areas, where these public transportation systems are non-existence.

Miriam Heyman: Paratransit services are operated by cities and states and they provide door-to-door transportation for people with disabilities, in both urban and rural locations, but they don’t give people the basic freedom to come and go as they please. You have to call and reserve a ride at least 24 hours in advance in many places. So people can’t run out to the grocery store to buy a carton of milk. We’re talking about basic dignity and independence and freedom to come and go as you please.

Jay Ruderman: So do you see self-driving cars as something that’s inevitable?

Miriam Heyman: So I think it’s very possible that we’ll get there, but I think it is not inevitable. It’s that the disability community will be included in the design to reach that point. Currently, the cost of retrofitting any car to make it accessible cost between $20,000 and $80,000. Meanwhile, people with disabilities are more likely to have lower incomes and live in poverty than people without disabilities. So when cars are designed from the beginning, from an accessibility standpoint, that cost, that $20,000 and $80,000 is much, much smaller. And so the time to consider including a ramp or a lift system or including an auditory system for users who are blind is now.

Miriam Heyman: Local governments have considered laws which will require a licensed driver to be in self-driving cars at all times, when the vehicle is in use. That would prohibit people who are blind, people who have epilepsy from ever benefiting from a self-driving car. Luckily, the United States Department of Transportation has issued policy guidelines stating the view that we should not require a licensed driver to be in the car, but this policy guidelines is not binding. So we encourage the federal government to solidify its stance on this issue, but also the government needs to hear from the disability community. So we need to organize around this legislative issues and also to organize around our priorities for the design of self-driving cars, to make sure that they are being designed with users with disabilities in mind.

Jay Ruderman: It’s a big issue. It’s an issue that’s coming, that could be a real game-changer. Miriam, thank you so much for laying out the importance of transportation in terms of full inclusion and employment for people with disabilities. I think this made it much more clear to everyone listening as to why this is so important and why the disability community should be fully engaged as this technology develops and is rolled out. So thank you very much for your time today.

Miriam Heyman: Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman: So I’m going to welcome our second guest today, who is the vice president of Autonomous Vehicle and Mobility Innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy. He’s one of the experts behind and the co-author of the Ruderman Family Foundation White Paper – Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People with Disabilities. He is joining us today from Washington DC, where he’s working with government officials to address these challenges. Amitai Bin-Nun, thank you for joining me today.

Amitai Bin-Nun: Good afternoon Jay. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman: So let’s get into an issue that maybe a little bit confusing and futuristic for some people, but first let’s talk about self-driving cars. Let’s back up before the self-driving cars. What are the obstacles to transportation for people with disabilities?

Amitai Bin-Nun: We’re in a very exciting time now in transportation because new technologies, whether it’s self-driving cars or innovations like Uber and Lyft have created new options for people to get access to transportation and whether we’re talking about people with disabilities or the rest of the population, the change is happening very rapidly and this offers the potential to address some of the obstacles with transportation that have impact with people with disabilities.

Amitai Bin-Nun: And the disabilities community are very diverse, that encompasses many sub communities. Each of which have different obstacles due to transportation. So if you talk to members of the blind community, they will tell you that they don’t have the ability to drive because they cannot see the ride. For many wheelchair users, they may not have the ability … They may be able to use modified controls to drive or retrofit a vehicle, but those are very expensive, but then they also need to retrofit the vehicles to be able to store their wheelchairs easily.

Amitai Bin-Nun: And when it comes to non-driving modes of transportation, like public transportation or Paratransit, their obstacle’s there as well. Whether it is the accessibility of subway stations or bus stops or the infrequency and inflexibility of Paratransit services. We’re finding that across the board, people with disabilities travel less. It’s more expensive when they travel and this has a ripple effect on their ability to work, their ability to socialize, their ability to vote. So it’s really exciting that transportation now has the ability to address some of those negative outcomes.

Jay Ruderman: And this is a huge drag on our economy, participation in our electoral process. The buying power of people disabilities. I mean I think we’re aware of the major limitations of some of the public transportation systems in our country. Elevators that don’t work, subways that are inaccessible, buses that don’t stop for people with disabilities or don’t have the right technology to bring them into the buses. But let’s talk about technology and your focus and how technology is developing to overcome these obstacles to make transportation more accessible for people with disabilities.

Amitai Bin-Nun: I mean let’s talk about some of the lower hanging fruit and some of the innovations that are already on the road today, and then a little bit about some of the innovations that are hopefully coming in the near future, both of whom could use the engagement of advocates for the disability community with policy makers, to make sure that these innovations come as quickly as possible and also come in a way that benefits the community and as inclusive as possible to the community.

Amitai Bin-Nun: Certainly, we recognize that Uber and Lyft are far from perfect and have not put in stringent accessibility requirements for their vehicle fleets, but most of those platforms have accessible services that increase the access of accessible vehicles for people with disabilities and also for many members of the community. For example, many members of the blind community have told us that Uber and Lyft are godsend for them because as long as they can use an interface to summon the cars, their able to get in them and go where they want to go. Now, this doesn’t work for everyone. If you need a wheelchair accessible vehicles, those are harder to come by in the platform, but those have certainly made progress and now there are more options and more accessible option.

Amitai Bin-Nun: Some of the innovation in how we dispatch vehicles to where and when people will need it are beginning to filter in to the Paratransit community. Lyft is working with some transit agencies to get some of those software onto Paratransit scheduling so instead of having to schedule Paratransit 24 hours in advance and having a one hour window in which the ride may come, in some of these pilots, the lead in times for requesting a ride and the windows in which they might come are narrower.

Jay Ruderman: So that’s good news that the private sector, with Uber and Lyft are making transportation more accessible for people with disabilities, but let’s transition and talk about autonomous vehicles. Many people think of autonomous vehicles … I mean they know that they’re in the process. They hear about vehicles being developed, but it seems very futuristic. When are they coming?

Amitai Bin-Nun: I think we’re already seeing pilot deployments of vehicles with no drivers in limited areas. Now some of them are used as shuttles to get people from one location on their campus to another. So you could see that being very useful in the senior community or in a hospital campus or in military base. And those are actually already in pilot use. And in terms of getting their broader use, so where you could think about taking them from one place to another, we’re seeing the very earliest pilot deployments right now in Phoenix, Arizona. And my sense is that, that is going to roll out and expand in cities across the U.S. over the next 5 to 10 years.

Jay Ruderman: And what about some of the legislation that has been sort of detrimental to people with disabilities and as self-driving cars become more reality? Saying for example, someone is blind and does not have a license is prohibited from using an autonomous vehicle by themselves. How do you get around that type of legislation to make these vehicles more beneficial for people with disabilities who can really benefit from them?

Amitai Bin-Nun: This is not a process that happens by itself. Legislation regulation don’t write themselves and the creation of laws and their impact on autonomous vehicles and on people with disabilities is going to be shaped by the groups that show up and make the case and argue for how did the regulation should impact people and their lives. And so we’ve seen … Actually have seen here in Washington D.C. a lot of engagement by the disability community around self-driving cars. There’s that many advocacy groups that represent disability and just from the National Federation of the Blind to the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.

Amitai Bin-Nun: I’ve been really at the forefront of talking to legislators, talking to regulators about the promise of autonomous vehicles, both generally and then specifically talking about what measures in regulation or legislation would make sure that as many of the benefits as possible for people with disabilities will be preserved as these vehicles become a reality.

Jay Ruderman: So do you feel the governments are listening to the disability community, understanding the real need that these vehicles can transform the lives and the economics of the disability community?

Amitai Bin-Nun: I think there’s certainly a recognition of that in important policy circles. The Department of Labor, for example has a fairly robust initiative, where they’re looking at how they can use autonomous vehicles to help people with disabilities. Safe co-hosting online dialog with them which welcome members of the public to suggest ideas for policies and initiatives that can help autonomous vehicles benefit the disability community. And we took in ideas from dozens of people and put them before a panel of experts to comment and presented it to the leadership of the department. Will states continue to require licenses in a driverless vehicles and might that prevent people who can’t get driver’s licenses from getting into these vehicles? Well, in response to some of these concerns that were raised by advocates, there is actually a provision in legislation before the Senate that would say that states cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in the issuance of driver’s license. That’s in explicitly aligned in legislation that being considered in the Senate. And the reason why that’s there is because advocates showed up and said, “This is something that’s important. This is something that should be in the legislation.” And that’s what they are.

Jay Ruderman: So let’s talk about some of these high profile accidents. Advocates of self-driving vehicles who’ve been out in the road and have been killed or hurt and the media has put a lot of tension on these. How does that help the movement to move forward with self-driving cars, especially with people disabilities? Does this set us back? Are these bumps on the road? How do you see it?

Amitai Bin-Nun: We absolutely believe that companies are developing self-driving cars, need to test them responsibly on public roads and need to take steps to ensure that they’re not subject in the public to undue risk by developing the technology. And from what we’ve seen, most companies in the space are responsible and are taking reasonable precautions and are being very thoughtful in their approach to putting the technology on the roads.

Amitai Bin-Nun: That doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect and I think we needed to be prepared for autonomous vehicles not to be perfect. They still can be much, much safer than today’s vehicles, where we lost 40,000 people last year to vehicle crashes. We think of autonomous vehicles have huge opportunity to really reduce that number. And I think what we need to do is keep in mind the long game. What we’re trying to aim for? We’re trying to build a transportation system that’s safer, that’s more accessible for people with disabilities, more accessible for people who are kind of unlikely disadvantage and that’s a goal we’re investing in. And I think at the same time, we can do that at the same time as testing responsibly. And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do both. And I think advocates to see this technology should say that we should push forward on the autonomous vehicle while at the same time testing responsibly.

Jay Ruderman: Obviously, the benefits to people with disabilities who do not have access to transportation especially if they are living in rural or suburban areas can be life-changing. What more can the disability community do to ensure that autonomous vehicles are as beneficial as possible to people disabilities?

Amitai Bin-Nun: That’s a great question. In the repost that we did together with Ruderman Foundation, we outlined three areas of action. One, for the disability community to take a more proactive role and then we also offer a specific recommendations to governments, both federal and state and to industry. But I think for the community I would say, it’s really important to advocate for yourselves. It’s really important to express the importance of seeing the technology come about and express that it’s going to be helpful too in your everyday lives. I think that is convincing to law makers. And I think there should also be, maybe you should try to be as specific as possible in identifying policies that might be helpful to make sure that these vehicles are beneficial as possible for the community, whether there was our special pilots designed to see how autonomous vehicles can help with accessibility or are working to push back on states that might not allow these vehicles to operate without a licensed driver in them. I think the more input we got I think the more effective it’s going to be in changing the minds of legislators and decision makers.

Jay Ruderman: So one last question Amitai, in reality, how long is it going to take before you see autonomous vehicles driving on the road?

Amitai Bin-Nun: I think it’s going to depend on where you are and what it’s used for. I don’t think there’s a simple answer like, “In two years, they’re going to be out there.” It’s not like they’re going to like suddenly drop out of the sky. I think already today, there are low-speed shuttles. So there’s basically like think about like monorails with wheels that can drive around without a driver in it. And I think part of the work that needs to be done is thinking about creative ways to use the technology that’s already available to be useful to people who don’t have full access to transportation. The ability for cars to drive themselves will come little by little, area by area. And I think the more proactive communities are about bringing that to them, I think the quicker it will come.

Jay Ruderman: Okay. Well, thank you for being with us today Amitai. It’s been very informative. Your insights and the important work you’re doing are going to be crucial, not only for the disability community but transportation itself in the United States and beyond. We all know that self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize lives of so many. So we’ll keep following your progress and thank you. Thanks for joining us today.

Amitai Bin-Nun: Well, thank you Jay. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’m looking forward to continuing to work together on this fascinating topic.

Jay Ruderman: Thank you.

Announcer: All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts or to learn more go to rudermanfoundation.org/ allinclusive.

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