Autonomous Vehicles: Along for the Ride

autonomous automotive vehicles

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There are many applications for autonomous automotive vehicles that, in simple terms, “drive themselves,” and people with mobility-related disabilities could be among the consumers to benefit most.

While adaptive automotive equipment such as hand controls and wheelchair securement systems already make it possible for many wheelchair users to drive (and automotive ramps and lifts enable them to ride as passengers), adding autonomous vehicles to the mix could offer independent mobility to an even greater range of consumers. Imagine a parent with very high-level quadriplegia, for instance, being able to participate in the neighborhood carpool on school days. Or a college student with cerebral palsy and severe tone issues being able to get to school via his own car.

No more waiting at bus stops in severe weather. No more booking rides with shared-ride systems that can be overwhelmed with high volumes of calls. No more needing to hope that a cab or ride-share driver won’t be scared off by the idea of transporting a consumer plus a wheelchair and possibly a service animal.

The promise of commercially available autonomous vehicles is enormous, but as with any emerging technology, the landscape is also filled with questions, as well as a sense of urgency so that the many and complex perspectives of people with disabilities are included as early as possible in decision-making processes.

Chuck Hardy, NMEDA’s VP of quality assurance and compliance, says the organization composed of dealers, manufacturers, service providers and driver rehabilitation clinicians is already working to be front and center on this issue.

“We’ve been given the green light to form a task force to look at autonomous vehicles and how they’re going to impact our industry and what kind of influence we can have,” he says, adding that the main goal is “to make sure we have a voice in the whole process. We want to be on the front end of this.”

It’s a topic sure to be discussed at the annual NMEDA conference, to be held Feb. 14-16 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“Right now, the challenge has been finding out who has been involved in the efforts and how we can get involved,” says Hardy, who says he has spoken, for instance, with a university whose rehab science school would also like to participate. “Like any competitive industry, there are a lot of people keeping quiet.”

Ultimately, NMEDA would like to be intimately involved in the autonomous vehicle realm to ensure the voices of its members and consumers with mobility-related disabilities are accurately and well represented.

“We’re trying to figure out who’s got their hands in the pot right now, so we can figure out — can we join the board, can we be on an advisory panel?” Hardy says. “We don’t want to see the industry evolve without some input from the adaptive community.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Mobility Management.

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