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Driverless cars: The future has to be inclusive otherwise it’s already the past

Driverless car with orange environmental sensors approaching a pedestrian crossing. A number of people are crossing the road.

Earlier this week (20 May 2024) the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act became law which could see driverless cars on British roads in just 2 years. And while this might seem like good news for disabled people and others with access needs, who are potentially going to be the biggest user groups, we have concerns. 

The new Act quite rightly talks a lot about road safety, as well as setting up a regulatory scheme for self-driving vehicles but our question is what about ensuring driverless cars are accessible? Is that something which is being factored in from the outset, or something that will only come later?  If history is anything to go by, we have the horrible feeling it will be the latter.  

Look at trains that were initially built with huge vertical differences from the platform causing access issues and safety concerns for everyone, or airplanes which have aisles too narrow for regular-sized wheelchairs, forcing them to be checked into the hold.  And then there’s the cycle hire schemes which evolved without any provision for those with sight loss, mobility or balance issues or the fact it took taxi laws almost a century to provide a service for disabled people. 

Driverless cars offer the real opportunity to make a significant difference to disabled people’s lives which is why Guide Dogs and other organisations have been so vocal about how AVs can unlock independence for those with sight loss.  

But if we don’t build in accessibility throughout the development and deployment of this project, we risk simply creating more access barriers in terms of both the vehicles themselves and the infrastructure. 

As a minimum, we want to see: 

  • interactive systems with audio feedback to assist getting in and out of the vehicle
  • emergency controls and communication 
  • visual alerts
  • information systems for D/deaf people 
  • accessible spaces inside for those with mobility aids
  • features with visual contrast
  • suitable grabrails for ambulant disabled people 
  • features to reduce anxiety for those with neurodiverse access needs

As Access Consultants, we’ve seen first-hand how much easier it is to make a building inclusive by design rather than to retrospectively make it accessible. So, let’s get it right first time and build in accessibility now, rather than doing too little too late.