Nearly every day a new headline about automated or ‘driverless’ cars hits the headlines, and it’s not surprising as developments are seen as having such transformative potential that they are often described as a ‘revolution’ or ‘quantum leap’. The UK is a key player in this field; an international comparison of ‘autonomous vehicle readiness’ by KPMG ranks the UK 5th, noting that it has carved a niche as a testing and proving ground for automated vehicle technology. [i] Automated vehicles are also receiving significant policy priority. The Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles was set up in 2015 and significant financial investment has been made in order to meet the UK’s ambition to see fully driverless cars on the road by 2021[ii].
As the UK’s Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill passes through Parliament, discussion has been dominated by insurance, cybersecurity and safety concerns. These are of course valid issues that arise as technology progresses at a pace that is changing faster than public attitudes and the regulatory environment. However, alongside a recognition that there are concerns to be addressed, an overarching discourse among UK politicians and industry is one of hope. The benefits are often seen in terms of the potential market growth and economic benefits that could flow from the UK acting as a world leader the technology. Safety benefits are also often majored on – an often-cited US based statistic is that 94% of road accidents are caused by human error,[iii] and automated driving is seen to hold the potential to drastically reduce collisions.
One potential benefit which has so far failed to grab headlines concerns the potential for driverless cars to offer independence and help promote equality of mobility for people currently unable to travel in the ways they require.
The ability to travel around is fundamental to our achievement of the most basic activities – to go shopping, attend work, or visit friends or family. It is a key facet of independence and impacts our overall wellbeing. Yet people who are disabled or elderly are among those who face significant limitations to the mobility they are able to achieve:
Difficulties are also faced by those in rural areas where public transport can run infrequently, and where even getting to the bus stop can be a challenge for some. There has been a worrying decline in bus coverage too, which is reported to be “leaving people unable to reach basic services such as shops and GP surgeries”.[vii]
Is it worth thinking then, of the potential automated transport holds to deliver sustainable community transport services? Or the role it could play in enabling those for whom making it to a bus stop is a struggle? Schemes like Dial-a-Ride provide valuable services to people with mobility limitations but booking needs to be made well in advance of a journey, usually the day before, and can be limited by type of trip, such as disallowing travel for daily trips to work.[viii] We’d like to imagine a future transport system to afford true mobility independence, and it’s worth investigating the innovative ways that automated vehicles could contribute to this.
So far, positive steps have been taking by the Government to recognise the potential benefits that automated vehicles could bring for enhancing equality of mobility. In a speech late last year Transport Secretary Chris Grayling acknowledged that elderly people or those with disabilities will “discover a new sense of freedom and independence”[ix] as the result of the technology. If people are to experience this, key considerations include:
Promoting accessibility of design in relation to automated vehicles doesn’t appear to be a policy priority at present, and this issue perhaps isn’t at the forefront of discussions because the benefits could only accrue at the most developed level of automation. There are a variety of estimates as to when we might expect to see this, from the UK Government’s commitment to see fully self-driving cars on the road by 2021 and Tesla’s ambition to produce a fully self-driving car by the end of the year[x], to more cautious estimates that such automation will not happen for at least another decade.
However, if we are to realise the full potential of automated vehicles, steps need to be taken now to ensure that accessibility is designed in. This is something we recently advocated in our report Securing the future, where we recommended that the Government works with industry to introduce and uphold an independent living guarantee to ensure that environments are ‘designed for age and mobility’.[xii] The Government’s acknowledgement that “accessible vehicles are a clear potential market for [automated vehicle] technology”[xiii] is therefore to be welcomed. The response from industry response has yet to become clear – none of the eight major companies we contacted recently were able to respond to a request about the consideration they are giving to accessible design.
Government and industry must engage at the earliest opportunity with the individuals and communities who could most benefit from automated vehicles. There is not yet a large body of research on public attitudes to automated technology, but existing research tends to show that older people report being less positive and more cautious about its benefits.
Innovative projects are currently being developed in the UK to address current gaps in knowledge. One example is INSIGHT which is looking at the development of driverless shuttles in Birmingham, with a particular focus on ensuring accessibility for people who are disabled or visually-impaired. Another example is FLOURISH – a multi-sector collaborative project which aims to ensure that older people are at the forefront of designing automated vehicles. This type of engagement could result in findings as simple as understanding that a person might wish to disrupt a pre-programmed journey in order to take a rest break, or it could result in a better understanding of the human and service support that will help build confidence and trust in the technology to enable independence
All too often debates get caught between hyperbole about the limitless potential of driverless cars and talk of a dystopian future where our movements are tracked, roads are full of automated cars, and social contact, public transport, walking and cycling are all drastically reduced. Concerns about cybersecurity, insurance and safety still need to be addressed. While automated vehicles hold the potential to dramatically enhance mobility for some people, we need to also assess potential negative effects, and whether as with some technological changes, certain groups, such as the less well off or those based in rural areas, will be unable to access them.
It is clear that technology has the power to help overcome traditional hurdles, however it could also function to increase isolation and division. We often hear the phrase: ‘driverless cars are coming’ – as if technology is simply something that is ‘done to us’. What if, instead, we can co-produce and use it to help move us toward the society we wish to see?