Government’s gearing up for an inclusive driverless future

I've written many articles about how exciting - and potentially game-changing - the future of fully autonomous vehicles is for all of us, but especially those of us with a disability. Being blind myself, I’ve avidly awaited their arrival for some years now – and, towards the close of 2022, they’re still tantalisingly out of sight.

Back in 2018, I was writing about the power of a personalised on-demand driverless future where (crucially) inclusive design was prioritised along with safety and convenience and, some months later, it truly felt like we were accelerating towards that disability-friendly future. There didn’t seem to be a week that went by without several stories charting the development of fully autonomous systems and how they may be just around the corner.

Colour photo of the Nissan Leaf car out on the road

OK, so it’s taken a little longer than many people thought – but there have been significant advancements since this journey started with many millions of fully driverless miles clocked up to date. Even though most of these were confined to certain states in America - where roads are usually straight and cities conveniently mapped out in regular blocks – other countries, with less favourable conditions, have undertaken successful trials too. For example, in early 2020 a Nissan LEAF all-electric vehicle, equipped with all the necessary sensors and systems for fully autonomous driving, set a new UK record journey of 230 miles across our uniquely challenging mix of roads and traffic – signifying just how viable these technologies are for everyone who either wants or needs to be driven autonomously. Again, I had to write about what I felt this landmark driverless journey might presage for people with disabilities.

Governments – gearing up for an inclusive driverless future

Where does regulation fit in? As well as the obvious commercial interest in fully autonomous vehicles, several governments have recognise the importance of research and regulation in ensuring a truly inclusive driverless future.

In January this year (2022), Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications partnered with LaTrobe University and the iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre on a project to investigate how future driverless vehicles should be regulated to ensure that people with disabilities aren’t left unable to successfully engage with the entire end-to-end process.

On 19 August the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles published a document; ‘Connected and automated mobility 2025: realising the benefits of self-driving vehicles’. This document describes the government’s approach to supporting the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles to best deliver both societal and economic benefits.

It includes the government response to:

It also commits to a new legislative framework for safe self-driving road vehicles. This new framework will enable innovation whilst also ensuring safety for all users – including those with disabilities.

Front of a vehicle driving on the motorway with a sunset

As you can imagine, there are obvious issues of safety when it comes to vulnerable or disabled users of driverless vehicles – from avoiding being worst off in a collision with a silent electric car (one particularly front-of-mind for me as a blind person), to being thwarted by an inaccessible ride-hailing app when you are out and alone late at night (again, a disquieting prospect for me and many others who are vulnerable or disabled), to possible journey-sharing options with strangers (the most cost-effective option favoured by all those with an eye for economy), to physical ingress and egress for those with mobility issues or in a wheelchair (ever had lift doors close before you’re all the way in?) Even something as basic as peace of mind in knowing that the doors are indeed locked – something a blind person can never be sure of if the only indicator is a lit-up symbol of a key (please think of me next time you use the loo on a train).

The government is seeking input into a proposed new self-driving vehicle safety framework and I’d recommend anyone with concerns or views to contribute to the consultation process.

Are we there yet?

So, how close are driverless cars in reality? Well, it’s true to say that they are actually here on our streets today – not in any widespread commercial sense, but the journey towards a future where car ownership is undesirable (economically, practically and environmentally) is definitely underway.

There are still many very valid concerns over safety (I’m sure many readers will be aware of the recent video of an autonomous vehicle driving over simulacra of small bodies), but very few dissenting voices question whether we’ll ever actually get to our destination.

“Are we there yet?” No. There’s still quite a way to go. The above framework’s objective is the establishment of an inclusive foundation for the future of autonomous vehicles by 2025 and I, for one, can’t wait to get there.

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