Ah, driving cars. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that I’m going to get my freedom back,1 I’d retire to Barbados and sip delightful rum drinks all the rest of my days. The most common version of this tends to include The Oatmeal’s exciting comic of the awesomeness of autonomous cars, including the heartfelt wish for his mother to be able to get around independently again. “Look Kelly, aren’t autonomous driverless cars fantastic? You’ll be normal again!”2
Oh, so many things to unpack in what is generally a well-intentioned, but ultimately irritating, statement.
First and foremost, let’s be clear about this: autonomous cars are not being developed for the disabled. Oh sure, the disabled may eventually benefit, but they’re not the target. For one thing, the pay gap between the working disabled vs able-bodied workers is huge–in some states, up to 37% less, and that gap persists regardless of education attained. The fully disabled are often among the poorest people in American society.
People who earn a lot less than average, people who are often in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, are not the people who are targetted with shiny new technological advances…like self-driving, fully autonomous cars.
But let’s wave our hands and put that aside, and say we live in a magical world where this isn’t an issue–Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg decide to team up to make sure every single disabled person in America has access to one of these awesome new cars.
There’s still the steering wheel.
In education, where Texas goes, textbooks go–it’s why the legal debate over what’s inside those bindings gets so much coverage. Texas is a massive market for textbooks, and it’s easier to build to that market and push the results on others than to try to do something different for other states.
California is kind of the Texas of technology, and California has said newp, fully autonomous cars must still have brakes that a driver can operate, and a steering wheel a driver can override and control. Not very easy to do if you’re blind, if your foot doesn’t work, if you can’t rotate to look over your shoulder, or all the other reasons people are no longer able to drive.
And it’s not just California that’s cautious. A brand new study by Volvo shows that 92% of folks? Believe they should be able to take over control of an autonomous car at any point.3
All of which means that anyone who wants a fully autonomous self-driving car is going to be able to afford the car and be able to drive it normally. That’s going to exclude all those disabled folks who aren’t driving because of their disability.
But those facts aren’t really the whole of it, or the worst of it. The whole, the worst, is this: people, whether they’re companies or tech evangelists, are selling a false promise. The whole “this is going to revolutionize the life of disabled people” is selling the public a bill of goods and being used to generate positive feelings about new technology; I can almost guarantee any advertising we see will be warm, fuzzy, and all about family and “regained ability.”
People who are disabled, disability itself, is being used to sell the concept of self-driving, autonomous cars to able-bodied folks, when the reality is, they’re at the last of the groups who will benefit from these technologies.
“We’ll save the disabled people” is not only irritating, it hurts.
If you want to help disabled people–people like me–have better access to the community around them, advocate for better transit, better walking and biking communities, and easier and cheaper access to paratransit.4 Don’t use my inability to drive (ironically, because of a car accident) to feed or feel better about your desire for novel technologies.
With thanks to Bethany, for understanding.